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What is a Judicial Precedent?

By Felicia Dye
Updated May 17, 2024
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Judicial precedent refers to a process in which decisions in legal cases are used to set a standard for cases thereafter. Lower courts are supposed to be bound by the decisions made in superior courts. Not following the prior standards is not supposed to be an option for a court. There are, however, certain techniques that can allow judges to avoid precedents. This system is generally attributed as originating from English law.

Stare decisis is a Latin term that can be translated as to stand upon decisions. This is the underlying principle of judicial precedent. According to this rule, if a legal question has already been answered or interpreted, that decision should be used in all cases involving the same question thereafter. Superior court decisions can reverse precedents that have developed in lower courts. When decisions are made by superior courts, however, these decisions are binding and must be respected by all inferior courts in that jurisdiction.

In legal systems where judicial precedent is used, one of the primary motives is consistency. The law is not meant to be a matter of personal whim but rather a system based on solid, justifiable principles. Judicial precedent makes the legal system consistent. When there is inconsistency in a legal system, justice is generally considered to be jeopardized.

Consistency is not the only advantage of judicial precedent. This system also provides a measure of predictability. As decisions made in the past can be reviewed ahead of a trial, it is often possible to predict or to make an educated guess as to what the outcome will be.

One case can only be considered a precedent for another if the legal question involved is the same. For example, a case may determine that making traffic stops based on perceptions of race and criminality is a violation of civil rights and therefore that any resulting charges must be dismissed. In all other cases where this issue arises, this conclusion should be applied.

For judicial precedent to apply, there generally needs to be similarity between the cases involved. The facts in two cases do not need to be identical, but they must be relevant. Judges may sometimes use this as a loophole to escape a binding decision. They can do this by considering the facts in one case to be different enough from those in another that the older case is not relevant and therefore is not binding as a precedent.

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Discussion Comments

By jcraig — On Nov 07, 2011

@cardsfan27 - Good question. First off, no, Appellate courts don't have to follow the decisions of equal courts. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of instances when it is important for these courts to make their own decisions because the situations around a certain law may be very different from one circuit to another.

As for the first question, I don't think upper courts ever refer to lower courts for decisions. In a lot of cases, a higher court will refer to a lower decision and state why they agree or disagree, but they don't let that decision sway them.

As for the Supreme Court using other Supreme Court cases or a lower court referring to a higher court decision, that happens all the time. That is the whole basis of how the court system is set up. It is up to the courts to understand the laws that have been written and how they have been interpreted in the past.

That's not to say a later court may interpret the ruling differently, but in their opinions, they must explicitly state why they believe the old ruling was inappropriate.

By cardsfan27 — On Nov 07, 2011

@Emilski - I'm not sure I really agree with the idea of judges voting along party lines. For sure, judges are often called conservative or liberal, but that is less to do with political parties and more to do with interpretation of the Constitution and how much government should be involved in policy making. Besides that, there are a few judges who are very unpredictable when it comes to voting.

I haven't really read any court cases or anything, so what I'm wondering about is how often the Supreme Court uses rulings from other courts to make their decisions. For example, if they have a controversial case, will they ever look at a ruling from an appeals court to help them with their decision?

Along those same lines, whenever an appeals court makes a ruling on something, do the other appeals courts have to follow that same ruling or do they get to set their own precedent for their district?

By Emilski — On Nov 06, 2011

@jcraig - Like you mentioned, you start to see different judges having different opinions on various issues. After a while, it seems like it starts to get pretty predictable about how certain cases are going to go. Conservative judges will vote for their political issues and liberal judges will vote for their issues.

Does it really seem like legal precedence matters when judges will just vote for what benefits them most?

I don't know a lot about the English legal system, but I would be interested to see how it compares to the U.S. system. Like the article mentions, it is based more on legal precedent, but does that significantly change how things are done?

By jcraig — On Nov 05, 2011

When I was in college, I took a class in environmental law where we read a lot of court cases, and it was really interesting to look at how courts use precedent in making their decisions.

The neat thing about environmental law is that it is relatively new, with most of the laws coming about over the last 40 years. Since judges don't have a lot of environmentally based cases to go off of, they often have to do what the article mentions where they look at cases from different areas that had a lot of analogous circumstances.

I think it is worthwhile to look at Supreme Court cases over the years and see how different judges have ruled on various things. You start to see some distinct lines between how different justices feel on certain issues. For the most part, though, I feel like the judges make the right rulings.

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