[Latin, Let the decision stand.] The policy of courts to abide by or adhere to principles established by decisions in earlier cases.
In the United States and England, the COMMON LAW has traditionally adhered to the precedents of earlier cases as sources of law. This principle, known as stare decisis, distinguishes the common law from civil-law systems, which give great weight to codes of laws and the opinions of scholars explaining them. Under stare decisis, once a court has answered a question, the same question in other cases must elicit the same response from the same court or lower courts in that jurisdiction.
The principle of stare decisis was not always applied with uniform strictness. In medieval England, common-law courts looked to earlier cases for guidance, but they could reject those they considered bad law. Courts also placed less than complete reliance on prior decisions because there was a lack of reliable written reports of cases. Official reports of cases heard in various courts began to appear in the United States in the early 1800s, but semiofficial reports were not produced in England until 1865. When published reports became available, lawyers and judges finally had direct access to cases and could more accurately interpret prior decisions.
For stare decisis to be effective, each jurisdiction must have one highest court to declare what the law is in a precedent-setting case. The U.S. Supreme Court and the state supreme courts serve as precedential bodies, resolving conflicting interpretations of law or dealing with issues of first impression. Whatever these courts decide becomes judicial precedent.
In the United States, courts seek to follow precedent whenever possible, seeking to maintain stability and continuity in the law. Devotion to stare decisis is considered a mark of judicial restraint, limiting a judge's ability to determine the outcome of a case in a way that he or she might choose if it were a matter of first impression. Take, for example, the precedent set in ROE V. WADE, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, the 1973 decision that defined a woman's right to choose ABORTION as a fundamental constitutional right. Despite the controversy engendered by the decision, and calls for its repudiation, a majority of the justices, including some conservatives who might have decided Roe differently, have invoked stare decisis in succeeding abortion cases.
Nevertheless, the principle of stare decisis has always been tempered with a conviction that prior decisions must comport with notions of good reason or they can be overruled by the highest court in the jurisdiction.
The U.S. Supreme Court rarely overturns one of its precedents, but when it does, the ruling usually signifies a new way of looking at an important legal issue. For example, in the landmark case BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), the Supreme Court repudiated the SEPARATE-BUT-EQUAL doctrine it endorsed in PLESSY V. FERGUSON, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256 (1896). The Court ignored stare decisis, renouncing a legal precedent that had legitimated racial SEGREGATION for almost sixty years.
Brewer, Scott. 1998. Precedents, Statutes, and Analysis of Legal Concepts. New York: Garland.
MacCormick, D. Neil, and Robert S. Summers. 1997. Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study. Aldershot; Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate/Dartmouth.