Stare decisis, literally, ‘‘to rest upon what has been decided.’’ Stare decisis describes the English and American system of adherence to precedent. When an American appellate court reaches a decision in a dispute, it publishes its report of the decision and its reasons for the decision. Later, in cases that have similar facts and similar disputes, the appellate court will follow and apply the rule of the earlier case to reach a like decision.
The principle of stare decisis, therefore, acts as a check on arbitrary judicial decisions. Although this protects individual rights against arbitrariness, strict adherence to an unjust precedent may abridge individual rights. This was the case between 1896 and 1954, when United States courts adhered to the ‘‘separate but equal’’ precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) to uphold the legal and customary practices of racial segregation. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Court overruled Plessy, declining to follow the principle of stare decisis. Plessy’s long life shows the strength of stare decisis; Brown shows that it is not an inflexible rule, but a general principle that can be overcome for compelling reasons.
Nevertheless, stare decisis ensures a degree of fairness. The doctrine of equal protection of the laws teaches that the law ought to treat people in like circumstances in the same way. In a legal dispute, parties may expect to be treated like those in the earlier case by reason of the doctrine of stare decisis.
Finally, stare decisis advances the values of standardization and predictability of the law. When an appellate court describes a rule or interprets legislation, its decision educates the public about the law’s requirements and prohibitions. Stare decisis permits an individual or organization to rely on the decision in their everyday affairs, confident that they are obeying the law.
JEFFREY T. RENZ
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Due Process; Judicial Review