Stare decisis is a legal term that refers to the doctrine of precedent, well established in common law – court rulings being guided by previous judicial decisions. The term is derived from a Latin phrase that means “to stand by things decided” or “let the decision stand.”
Stare decisis, a Latin phrase meaning “to stand by things (previously) decided,” refers to the legal doctrine of judicial precedent – that previous legal rulings should subsequently govern future rulings on the same or similar legal issues.
In the U.S., the Supreme Court and the state supreme courts are considered as carrying precedential authority in their rulings, although precedent is sometimes established by a lower court.
A primary purpose of following the doctrine of stare decisis is to help ensure uniformity and fairness in the application of the law.
Understanding Stare Decisis
In both the United States and the United Kingdom, it is customary common law for judges to follow precedent rulings – those established in previous cases – when making rulings in similar cases.
Once a court has made a ruling concerning a matter of law, lower courts in the same jurisdiction are bound to follow the ruling in their own decisions, barring a different subsequent ruling by the higher court.
In the U.S., the Supreme Court and various state supreme courts are generally the courts that determine ruling judicial precedents. Precedent may be established in a lower court, but such is considered less definitive and authoritative than rulings made in the higher courts.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings govern subsequent rulings by all lower courts in the U.S. However, rulings by state supreme courts are only considered as establishing a precedent for other courts in that state and are not considered as binding precedent for rulings by courts in other states.
Also, it is not impossible for a judicial precedent ruling to be overturned later. The U.S. Supreme Court has, on a handful of occasions, made decisions reversing its own precedent rulings, on the grounds that the previous ruling was in error.
The doctrine of stare decisis became much more firmly established in the mid-19th century when written records of trials and court proceedings began being made, kept, and collected. The practice, of course, made it much easier for judges to reference prior legal decisions that were considered precedential.
Purpose of Stare Decisis
The doctrine of stare decisis is followed primarily to help ensure uniform justice and continuity in court decisions. It helps both judges and attorneys in the process of consistent application of the law.
It is also a form of judicial restraint, preventing a single judge in a lower court from issuing decisions that are out of line with what higher courts have determined as established law.
Following judicial precedents also helps to make the legal and judicial systems more efficient, as it precludes the need for courts to examine the same legal issue over and over again with every similar case.
Stare decisis is said to apply both horizontally and vertically. That is, judicial precedents should govern subsequent decisions both by the same court that established the precedent and by all lower courts in that court’s jurisdiction.
One of the most well-known examples of stare decisis in the U.S. is provided by the case of Roe v. Wade, wherein the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a woman’s right to elect to have an abortion to be a constitutionally protected right.
Despite widespread public opposition to the decision in the more than 40 years since the landmark 1973 case, the Supreme Court – even when controlled by a conservative majority – has consistently upheld the Roe v. Wade decision as stare decisis, determining the Court’s ruling in other abortion cases brought before the court since then.
However, it is worth noting that Roe v. Wade has also been the source of criticism of the doctrine of stare decisis, with many legal scholars arguing that following the precedent established in that case has merely led to the Court continuing to perpetuate a bad legal decision.
In the financial world, the U.S. Supreme Court case of Dirks v. SEC established the circumstances under which an individual may be convicted of insider trading and has served as governing precedent in that area of the law ever since.
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