Mandatory Authority

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

Recall that case law, also known as precedent or common law, is a body of past decisions made by judges that guide future courts when they make decisions on similar issues or cases. In essence, it is the law created by judges when they rule on cases. The principle behind case law is called “stare decisis,” a Latin phrase meaning “to stand by things decided.”  When such cases are decided, they create what is known as mandatory authority.

The Principle of Mandatory Authority

Defining Mandatory Authority

In the world of case law, the term mandatory authority plays a crucial role. It refers to a decision or ruling made by a higher court that lower courts must follow. These are laws that courts are required to apply, hence the term “mandatory.”

For instance, if the Supreme Court makes a decision on a specific legal issue, all other courts, such as the Circuit Courts and District Courts, must apply that decision in similar cases. This is because the Supreme Court is a higher court, and its decisions serve as mandatory authority for the lower courts.

Mandatory Authority in Action

Let’s consider an example to understand better how mandatory authority works in real-life situations. Suppose the Supreme Court ruled in a case that police need a warrant to search a person’s cell phone. This decision becomes a mandatory authority for all other courts in the country. If a similar case arises, say in a District Court, where the police searched a person’s cell phone without a warrant, that court must apply the Supreme Court’s decision. This would mean that any evidence obtained through the cell phone search could be considered illegal and may not be used in court.

It maintains consistency in legal decision-making and ensures that laws are applied uniformly across different courts and jurisdictions. It promotes fairness and predictability in the legal system, as similar cases will typically result in similar outcomes.

Exceptions to Mandatory Authority

Even though it is a fundamental concept in our legal system, there are some exceptions. For instance, if a higher court overrules a past decision, that past decision loses its status as mandatory authority. Also, mandatory authority applies only within the jurisdiction of the court that made the decision. A decision by the Supreme Court of California, for example, would not be mandatory authority for a court in New York.

Remember, understanding the concept and its role in case law is crucial for anyone studying or practicing law. It is a cornerstone of our legal system, helping to ensure consistency and fairness in how laws are applied.


In the realm of case law, mandatory authority is a principle that maintains consistency and fairness in legal decision-making. It refers to the laws or decisions made by higher courts that lower courts must follow. For example, if the Supreme Court makes a decision, lower courts, such as the Circuit Courts and District Courts, are required to apply that ruling in similar cases.

However, there are exceptions, such as when a decision is overruled or when it comes from a court outside of the lower court’s jurisdiction. Thus, understanding mandatory authority is key for those studying or working within the legal system.

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File Created:  08/07/2018

Last Modified:  08/07/2018

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