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Stare Decisis: A Legal Doctrine

How courts apply the past to the present.

Stare decisis is the “legal doctrine of precedent”, coming from the Latin phrase “to stand by things decided”. In simple terms, this doctrine means that current cases look at past cases and opinions--the precedent--to apply them. It prevents repeated trials of similar cases and allows the courts to refer to previous rulings and base their newer ruling on rationale from the original case. Stare decisis saves money and time spent on deliberation since it is easier to refer back to similar facts and rulings than create an entirely original opinion.

Some prime examples of stare decisis can be seen within any SCOTUS slip opinion (when citations refer to prior SCOTUS cases). For example, you’ll see many cases cited like this, “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)”. Notice the numbers after the ruling; the number “347” refers to the volume where that specific opinion can be found, and the number “483” refers to the page within that specific volume on where that opinion can be found. Throughout any opinion published, precedent of prior cases will be cited frequently. Stare decisis is also the main element within common law, which deals with precedents set by the judiciary. (on the other hand, statutory law deals with statutes or acts of congress.)

What are the two stare decisis?

There are two stare decisis, but to understand this, one must understand the layout of the judiciary system within America. In America, our courts follow an inferior hierarchical system with the Supreme Court at the top. There are lower, inferior courts that are seen on the federal and state level. For example, there are district courts that specifically refer to a district.

There is a horizontal stare decisis which refers to a precedent set on a lower level, that applies to precedents established within the same sphere of priority. This means that courts don’t have to adhere to precedents established within their same level, but can look at different levels to find usable opinions. For example, the Supreme Court doesn’t have to follow precedents set by the Supreme Court only. This is what allows for the reversal of cases such as Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942), where the Stone court deemed that a right to counsel isn’t provided by the sixth amendment as they said, “The Sixth Amendment of the national Constitution applies only to trials in federal courts.” The majority in this court concluded that people who cannot afford a lawyer, do not have a right to a state-provided attorney. However, almost twenty-one years later, the court overturned the opinion of Betts in Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). The Warren court held that “The Sixth Amendment provides, ‘In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.’ We have construed this to mean that in federal courts counsel must be provided for defendants unable to employ counsel unless the right is competently and intelligently waived.” The same applies to lower district courts where they don’t have to adhere to precedents set by their own courts, however, they can if they choose to. The second stare decisis is vertical stare decisis, which refers to a precedent set on a higher level. This applies specifically to lower courts, where they have to follow the precedent set by a higher court, such as the Supreme Court. This can be seen in cases delegating issues already solved by the Supreme Court, or if either party chooses to cite a case decided in a superior court, which has similar elements to their present case.

What are the two authorities when it comes to stare decisis?

There are two authorities when it comes to whether or not a court has the choice to follow a past precedent or not. There is a binding authority and a persuasive authority. Binding authority is when a court HAS to follow a superior ruling, which is the primary case seen in vertical stare decisis. The case for persuasive authority is seen in cases where there is a horizontal stare decisis, where both parties are free to cite cases as precedent. However, the court isn’t obligated to follow that ruling due to the fact that it’s considered as persuasive authority. Although, the court may take the precedent as a supporting element to an argument.


Legal precedents are rarely perfect, as there are often many excluded factors that were not taken into consideration at the time of deliberation. This is what allows for the refinement of precedent since it’s profoundly important for the court to consider both when coming to a conclusion. But it is also important that courts closely analyze the extent to which another authority is binding over specific facts that are similar. Even though a principle is created, it doesn't necessarily make it applicable to each and every case. An example of a poorly set precedent by the Supreme Court would be Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944) which allowed for the internment of innocent Japanese people on American soil.

And as the world changes more and more, it is important to consider past precedents in current cases. Precedent is something that ought to be consistently refined, and refinement doesn’t happen unless a judge is careful in how they apply a ruling that was previously held, connecting the political past with the present.






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