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Stare Decisis

Stare Decisis

No, that’s not a typo.  It’s an important legal doctrine that governs how the judicial branch of our government functions.  If you haven’t ever heard the term blame your 7th grade civics teacher.  Stare decisis is Latin which means “to stand by things decided”.  In other words, precedent.  The bulk of court opinions and decisions in state and federal courts are based upon and guided by this legal principle.

When lawyers prepare a case for trial, whether it be a criminal or civil matter, legal precedent comes into play.  The legal decisions that will be rendered in the present case are dependent to a large extent on the rulings that preceded them.

This brings me to my next point.  The media hysteria concerning Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision to retire has been off the chart.  Chris Matthews completely lost it in an interview with one of his colleagues last night on MSNBC.  He sounded like a raving lunatic, screaming about how the Democrats won’t stand for this.  It may make for good entertainment but it’s not even close to the truth.  Whomever is chosen to replace Justice Kennedy will be bound by stare decisis and the opinions and arguments of the other justices.  The world will not collapse.

US law operates under this doctrine, which means that prior decisions should be maintained — even if the current court would otherwise rule differently — and that lower courts must abide by the prior decisions of higher courts. The idea is based on a belief that government needs to be relatively stable and predictable.

This means that overturning a Supreme Court decision is very difficult. There are two ways it can happen:

  • States can amend the Constitution itself. This requires approval by three-quarters of the state legislatures — no easy feat. However, it has happened several times.
  • The Supreme Court can overrule itself. This happens when a different case involving the same constitutional issues as an earlier case is reviewed by the court and seen in a new light, typically because of changing social and political situations. The longer the amount of time between the cases, the more likely this is to occur (partly due to stare decisis).

Perhaps the most famous example of this involved the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case which overturned the previous Plessy v. Ferguson matter.  There are other instances when this has happened but generally justices respect and abide by the principle of stare decisis.

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