One of the most essential cornerstones of the American justice system is the concept of stare decisis, which is Latin for “let the decision stand.” In simple terms, this means courts should base their decisions partially on legal precedence set by previous judicial rulings. Unfortunately, many people still don’t understand what a legal precedent is, let alone how precedents are established and changed over time. Here’s a quick guide to define and explain the concept of precedent in American law.
What is a Precedent in Simple Terms?
At its most basic, a precedent is a past occurrence that can serve as an example to those in similar circumstances. Humans frequently learn through precedent. If a child sees their sibling jump down a flight of stairs while wearing roller skates, that could set a dangerous precedent in their head that doing so is safe. Similarly, if a teacher gives a student a prize for being the first child to complete an assignment on the first day of class, they may establish a precedent that working quickly will result in rewards.
What Does Precedent Mean in Law?
In the law, the stare decisis doctrine means that legal precedents should be followed when they are applicable. So, if a judge rules on a similar case, they should either base their ruling on legal precedents or explain why they chose not to do so. Precedent should not apply in cases where different circumstances apply.
For example, if a judge rules that an IP address is not enough to prove a suspect’s identity, other judges trying cases that involve a similar set of facts will generally decide to follow this precedent. On the other hand, if one judge throws out a case based on the fact that the only evidence was someone’s IP address, a judge presented with further evidence of a suspect’s guilt can choose to allow the IP address to be admitted as circumstantial evidence that further backs up the prosecution’s case because the case isn’t based on this evidence alone.
Horizontal and Vertical Stare Decisis
Stare decisis can be applied horizontally, meaning across courts of the same level, or vertically, where lower courts apply precedents set by higher courts. Courts have less leeway when using precedents from higher courts, so vertical stare decisis is much stronger than horizontal stare decisis.
In other words, when a higher court has made a ruling, lower courts in the same jurisdiction must follow suit. Lower courts cannot overturn precedents set by higher courts, though they may choose not to apply a precedent in a specific situation. Because the Supreme Court is the highest in the nation, its rulings set precedents for all other courts, and other courts cannot overturn their decisions.
On the other hand, with vertical precedents, courts outside of the same jurisdiction or with the same level of authority may abide by the ruling or choose to go a different route.
For example, in 2015, a New York District Court judge ruled that confessions made at an AA meeting should be considered protected religious confessions. However, the New York District Court only covers a few counties within New York state, so while courts in those counties need to follow this ruling, judges in California are free to make their own decisions.
What are the Two Types of Legal Precedents?
Precedents may be binding or persuasive. A binding precedent is one that a court must adhere to when making a ruling, while a persuasive precedent is one a court can choose to base their decision on, though they are not required to do so.
For example, the Supreme Court’s ruling that schools cannot be segregated by race in Brown V. Board of Education is binding, so all lower courts would be required to rule against a school that explicitly denied admission to students based on their race. Similarly, a superior court judge must follow a Court of Appeal precedent if it fits the case before them. They cannot disagree with the Court of Appeal. Auto Equity Sales Vs. Superior Court established that the rule of trial courts must follow on-point Court of Appeal decisions decades ago.
On the other hand, jury nullification may be illegal in California thanks to the State Supreme Court’s ruling in People v. Williams. However, because the decision was made in a state court, the decision would not apply to a federal district court or a court in another state. Instead, this precedent would be persuasive, so it would be up to judges in these other areas to make up their minds on the matter.
Broad Vs. Narrow Rulings
Precedents can be broad or narrow, particularly when the Supreme Court is involved. Generally, the justices writing the majority ruling will define how the precedent should be applied by making it very clear whether the decision only applies to the specific scenario brought before them or a wider variety of cases.
In some cases, some justices will sign consenting or dissenting opinions on the matter, suggesting that few fully agree with the outcome or reasoning of the ruling. When this happens, it can indicate a narrow precedent because many justices have indicated they would vote another way if circumstances were slightly different.
What is the Benefit of Having Courts Rely on Precedents?
Without precedents, lawmakers would need to create rules to guide nearly every aspect of the law. If legislators wrote laws on everything, courts would have less flexibility in applying these codes to specific situations. When there was no law specifying what to do in a particular situation, every judge ruling on the matter would have to make their own decisions, leaving attorneys, defendants, and plaintiffs with little idea about how a case’s specific judge would feel about the matter.
Establishing precedents helps to ensure the same standards will be applied to all court cases while also saving the courts precious time by giving judges guidance on how to rule based on the facts of the case.
How are Legal Precedents Used in the Criminal Justice System?
In the American legal system, trial court rulings on issues are not precedent for any other court. While many trial courts in a city like San Diego may decide matters similarly, they are not binding on one other. A trial court judge may take guidance from a similar case tried at their level, but they may also disagree with the finding and make their own decision.
While they may not set precedents, criminal courts are supposed to follow those set by higher courts. State trial courts generally follow their own state appellate courts and look to the California and U.S. Supreme Courts for constitutional issues. Federal trial courts look to the federal appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Do Judges Always Have to Follow Precedent?
No. If a judge feels a precedent would be inappropriate when applied to the case in front of them, they can choose to ignore it. However, they must specify why they decided not to use the precedent.
Can Legal Precedent be Overturned?
It is possible to overturn precedent, but it can be difficult and time-consuming. The more often lower courts agree on a rule, the better established it becomes and the more difficult it will be to challenge the decision. Higher court rulings must be overturned by courts at the same level or higher. The U.S. Supreme Court has such a high level of authority that its rulings can only be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court itself.
Unfortunately, because precedents are strengthened by increased rulings and decisions of higher courts, it can be difficult to challenge the results of questionable forensic science fields, like blood splatter analysis, even if scientists increasingly question the accuracy of these tools. As more evidence becomes available, attorneys may begin to get judges to rule against their use in court. If this becomes a widespread practice, it would establish new precedents, and these methods would eventually become inadmissible in court.
Alternatively, someone convicted based chiefly on blood splatter analysis could challenge the decision based on the inaccuracy of the science in an appeal. If the appellate court rejected their appeal, they could take their challenge to the state supreme court. If this appeal was rejected, it might be possible to bring the matter up to the federal Supreme Court, but this is rare, and the issue must be a matter of federal law.
The Importance of Precedent
When it comes to why this principle is so important, it is because it is used to build case law, which, in turn, becomes informal laws based on the common law. The blood splatter example is particularly relevant as it illustrates how easily precedent can be established just by having a few judicial rulings back something based on questionable science and how difficult it can be to challenge a precedent once it has been established.
If you have any questions about how previous judicial rulings establish precedent under the law, criminal defense lawyer Peter M. Liss can help. Please call (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024 to schedule a free consultation.