Even though trial courts and courts of appeal function differently from each other, together they are part of the U.S. judicial system. When the Supreme Court makes a decision, it establishes a binding precedent, which all lower courts should follow when a similar case comes to court. This legal principle is known as stare decisis, which ensures consistency in the application of the law. The role of stare decisis in the U.S. judicial system is for justices to look to past rulings to help guide future decisions regarding a similar scenario and facts.
Justices establish a precedent to use as a reference for future decision making. The foundation of the United States’ common law is based on “the rules and principles developed through custom and precedent” in society (Tragger 39). For example, in Roe v. Wade (1973), the Court included abortion rights as a right to privacy with some conditions set by the government. The Constitution does not outright list a right to privacy, but the United States Bill of Rights sets a precedent for “zones of privacy… which the government cannot unreasonably intrude” (Bill of Rights Institute). Over time, the majority of justices must agree on a point to develop the common law. They use these past decisions as a source to evaluate new situations when an outcome cannot be made solely based on existing written rules of law.
To maintain “a principle relevant to a certain set of facts” established by a higher court, all lower federal courts across the country must try to uphold “the same principle to similar facts” (Tragger 40). However, if a precedent is set in another area, courts may look to “different coequal jurisdictions,” for guidance, but they do not need to adhere to their precedents (Tragger 40). For instance, precedents set by Oregon courts are not bound to follow precedents established by Texas courts. Likewise, district courts do not need to follow the precedent set by appellate courts from other federal circuits. In fact, Courts may choose to stray from precedent altogether as our legal system must be able to respond to change.
Courts may have a compelling reason to diverge from precedent. Society’s dynamic tendencies result in “contemporary attitudes and practices,” which may “no longer support a 20-year-old precedent permitting the government” to uphold (Tragger 40). When new trends in the political, legal, or social atmosphere emerge, Courts may modify precedent to reflect these changes. Courts may also distinguish from, or on rare occasions, overturn precedent to “remedy past errors” (Tragger 41).
Reinterpreting precedent is done incrementally in contrast to a “rapid revolution of legal rules” to prevent immense social disruption (Tragger 32). For example, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court found “separate but equal” in public schools unconstitutional and overturned precedent. However, the decision did not provide a timeline or method to end racial segregation in schools. The structure of our legal system allows for flexibility despite the Court’s respect for precedent to use previously established court rulings to interpret laws.
Bill of Rights Institute. “Rove v. Wade (1973).” Bill of Rights Institute,
supreme-court-cases-elessons/roe-v-wade-1973/ Accessed 28 Sept. 2019