Legal precedents are an important cornerstone of the American justice system. Without them, a lawmakers would have to create rules to guide nearly every aspect of the law and if there was no law regarding a specific issue, every judge ruling on the matter would have to make up their own decisions, leaving attorneys, defendants and plaintiffs with no idea about how the specific judge ruling on their case will happen to feel about the matter. But what are these precedents and how are they created and changed over time? Here’s a quick guide to this aspect of the law and how it works in the United States criminal justice system.
What Does Precedent Mean?
At its most basic, a precedent is something that has previously happened that can be used as an example to be followed in similar circumstances. In the law, this means that if a judge rules that an IP address is not enough to prove a suspect’s identity when they have been charged with a computer crime, other judges trying cases that involve a similar set of facts will generally decide to follow this precedent. That being said, precedent only applies in cases with the same set of facts, so, for example, the idea that an IP address is not enough to prove the suspect’s identity might be enough precedent in other computer crimes cases, but not in cases where the IP address is proof of a witnesses’ identity. A judge coming across this second scenario may consider the decision of judges who ruled on the former issue, but he will need to come up with his own decision in this case.
How is a Legal Precedent Used by the Courts?
In the American legal system,trial courts rulings on issues are not precedent for any other trial court. While many trial courts in San Diego may decide issues the same way, they actually are not binding on each other. A trial court judge may take guidance from a similar case tried at her level, but she may also disagree with the finding and make her own decision.
The trial courts are supposed to follow the appellate and Supreme Courts. State trial courts generally follow their own state appellate courts and look to the U.S. Supreme Court for constitutional issues. Federal courts look to the federal appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.
When a higher court has made a ruling, lower courts in the same jurisdiction must follow suit and those outside of the same jurisdiction may choose to abide by the ruling or choose to go a different route. For example, in 2015, a judge in the New York District Court ruled that confessions made at an AA meeting should be considered protected religious confessions. That being said, the New York District Court only covers a few counties within New York state, so while courts in those counties would need to follow this ruling, judges in California are free to make up their own decisions.
It’s also worth mentioning that precedents can be broad or narrow, particularly when the Supreme Court is involved. Generally the justices writing the majority ruling will make it very clear in their decision whether the ruling only applies to a scenario very specifically similar to the one brought before them or if the ruling applies to a wide variety of cases. In some cases, a number of justices will sign consenting or dissenting opinions on the matter, indicating that few fully agree with the outcome or reasoning of the ruling. When this happens, it often indicates a narrow precedent because the majority of justices have indicated they would vote another way if circumstances were slightly different.
Can Legal Precedent be Overturned?
It is entirely possible to overturn precedent, but it can be difficult and time consuming. The more often lower courts agree on a rule, the more difficult it is to challenge the decision. Higher court rulings must be overturned by courts in the same level or higher. The US Supreme Court has such a high level of authority, that its rulings can only be overturned by the US Supreme Court itself.
This is why it can be so difficult to challenge the results of a blood splatter analysis and many psychiatric exams, despite the fact that science is beginning to question the accuracy of both of these tools. As more evidence becomes available to challenge the use of blood splatter analysis and psychiatric exams though, attorneys may begin to get judges to rule against their use in court and if this becomes a widespread practice, they may begin to be no longer admitted in court.
Alternatively, someone who has been convicted based mostly on blood splatter analysis could challenge the decision based on the inaccuracy of the science in an appeal. If his appeal was rejected by the appellate court, he could then take his 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 particularly rare and the issue at hand must be a matter of federal law.
The Importance of Precedent
When it comes to why this legal construct is so important, it comes down to how judges build case law, which in turn, become informal laws based on the common law of precedent. The blood splatter and psychiatric exams examples are particularly relevant as they illustrate the process of how precedent can be established just by having a few judicial rulings back something with questionable science behind them 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 legal precedent under the law, criminal defense lawyer Peter M. Liss can help. Please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free consultation.
Image by Claire Anderson