Stare Decisis

Topics: Supreme Court of the United States, Law, United States Constitution Pages: 5 (1961 words) Published: November 30, 2005
Stare decisis is one of the most important doctrines in common law. It is the doctrine under which courts adhere to precedent on questions of law in order to ensure certainty, consistency, and stability in the administration of justice.1 More specifically, it has been defined as "to stand by decided cases; to uphold precedents; to maintain former adjudications."2 In Latin, the term translates to "to stand by that which is decided." As practiced in the United States, the rule of stare decisis is matter of technique. Basically, in whatever way courts reach their conclusion, they are expected to place the situation they are judging within the generalized class of some existing decision. In doing so, they may, if they choose, disregard the opinion of that decision entirely. There are two types of stare decisis. Vertical stare decisis is the best known one, and it requires that once a high court makes a holding on an issue, lower courts are required to follow that precedent. Stare decisis also applies to courts of equal rank, including the deciding court itself. This is called horizontal stare decisis. Although one can easily argue whether the doctrine of stare decisis is a good one, or a bad one, it is justified by the desire to maintain continuity and stability in the law, and also by the ideas of justice and fairness. It promotes justice by establishing rules that enable many legal disputes to be concluded fairly. It also enhances the legitimacy of the court in two ways. One, by demonstrating that although there are changes in members of the court as time passes, justices still respect the court's own opinions and two, legitimacy is increased when legal rules are consistently applied and are the product of impersonal and reasoned judgment. Under the doctrine of stare decisis, only a point of law decided in a judicial opinion is binding on other courts as precedent. Questions of fact determined by a court have no binding effect on any subsequent case involving similar questions of fact. The facts of each case are recognized as being unique. There are only three judicially acceptable reasons to overturn precedent. These reasons are as follows: First, when the ruling is judicially unworkable. Second, when precedent is inconsistent with other cases, and third, when the reasoning has become outdated or conflicts with contemporary values (i.e. changing circumstances.) The constitution is a "living document" which, as Chief Justice Earl Warren once stated, "...must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."3 Over the years, stare decisis had proved to be much stronger in statutory cases than in constitutional cases. In constitutional cases, stare decisis is less strict and much more flexible. United States Supreme Court Justice Brandeis wrote that for constitutional cases, stare decisis . . . is not a universal, inexorable command.4 Also other courts have taken a less rigid approach to the doctrine stating things such as "stability should not be confused with perpetuity,"5 and "reconsidering cases enables the law to grow and change to meet the ever-changing needs of an ever-changing society and yet, at once, to preserve the very society which gives it shape."6 If the high court strictly adhered to precedent then it would only perpetuate any previous mistakes in constitutional interpretation. Basically, stare decisis means different things to different judges. Some practice judicial restraint and are reluctant to overrule precedent, while others have a major priority to correct what they view as fundamental errors in constitutional interpretation, thus overruling precedent. Most surprising of all however, are those judges who call upon the doctrine of stare decisis when it is in their favor to do so, and reject it when its not. Stare decisis poses a major dilemma for judges because, in most cases, it is supposed to be "binding". The principle of...
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