Stare Decisis

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

Stare decisis, a Latin phrase meaning “to stand by things decided,” is a fundamental principle in the American legal system. It directs courts to respect past rulings, providing a level of predictability and stability in the law. The essence of stare decisis is that once a court has answered a question, the same question must elicit the same response in other cases.

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Importance of Stare Decisis

Consistency and Predictability

Stare decisis promotes consistency and predictability. By adhering to precedents, courts ensure similar cases are treated similarly. This predictability helps individuals, businesses, and governments understand the legal consequences of their actions.

Confidence in the Legal System

By applying laws consistently, stare decisis boosts public confidence in the legal system. It demonstrates that the law is not subject to the whims of individual judges but is a stable institution that provides equal justice.

The Historical Development of Stare Decisis

Stare decisis has a rich history that traces its roots to the English common law tradition, from which American law largely originates. Understanding this history helps to appreciate the principle’s foundational role in our legal system.

Stare Decisis and English Common Law

The concept of stare decisis emerged in England during the Middle Ages as part of the common law—a system of law based on customs and court decisions rather than written statutes. English judges would make decisions in individual cases, and those decisions became precedents, serving as rules that future judges would follow. This tradition of following precedents, or stare decisis, was seen as a way to ensure consistency and fairness.

Transplanting Stare Decisis to America

When colonists came to America, they brought with them the legal traditions of England, including the common law and the doctrine of stare decisis. American courts, like their English counterparts, began to treat their own decisions and those of higher courts as binding precedents.

In the newly independent United States, the principle of stare decisis served an important function. By providing a degree of legal stability, it helped to unify the country’s various legal systems and to ensure that laws were applied consistently across different jurisdictions.

Stare Decisis in Modern American Jurisprudence

Today, stare decisis continues to be a fundamental principle in American law. It ensures that courts uphold the rule of law by treating similar cases similarly. At the same time, it also allows courts some flexibility, permitting them to depart from precedent when there are strong reasons for doing so.

Through its development and transplantation from the English common law tradition, stare decisis has become an integral part of the American legal landscape, shaping the way our courts interpret and apply the law.

Limitations and Flexibility of Stare Decisis

While stare decisis calls for respect for past decisions, it does not mean that courts never overturn past rulings. There are times when a court may decide that an earlier ruling was incorrect or that changes in society or legal understanding justify a different decision.

Overruling Precedents

The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, has sometimes overruled its previous decisions when later Justices have disagreed with the legal reasoning or found that the decision led to unjust results. However, this is not a step that courts take lightly, and it generally requires a strong justification.

Overruling Precedents: Landmark Cases in Criminal Justice

Overturning precedents is not common, but there have been notable cases in criminal justice where the U.S. Supreme Court has done so. Let’s consider two landmark examples: the cases of Mapp v. Ohio and Gideon v. Wainwright.

Mapp v. Ohio: Expanding the Exclusionary Rule

In the case of Wolf v. Colorado (1949), the U.S. Supreme Court had held that the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures was not applicable to state courts. However, in Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the Court reversed this ruling.

In Mapp, police had searched Dollree Mapp’s home without a warrant, and the evidence they found was used to convict her. When her case reached the Supreme Court, the justices ruled that the evidence should have been excluded because it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. This ruling overruled Wolf v. Colorado, extending the exclusionary rule to state courts and greatly influencing criminal procedure.

Gideon v. Wainwright: Right to Counsel

In the earlier case of Betts v. Brady (1942), the Court held that the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel did not require states to provide lawyers for indigent defendants in all cases. However, this decision was overruled in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963).

In Gideon, the defendant, Clarence Earl Gideon, was charged with burglary. Unable to afford a lawyer, Gideon requested one from the court but was denied. He defended himself and was convicted. When his case reached the Supreme Court, the justices ruled that the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel was fundamental and essential for a fair trial, overruling Betts v. Brady and mandating state courts to provide counsel for indigent defendants in all criminal cases.

These cases show how the principle of stare decisis provides stability yet allows for change when needed, thus balancing the demands for consistency and adaptability in our legal system.


Stare decisis is a cornerstone of our legal system that promotes consistency, predictability, and public confidence in the law. By instructing courts to respect and adhere to their previous decisions, the principle ensures similar cases receive similar treatment. However, while stare decisis is critical to the functioning of the law, it also provides some flexibility, allowing courts to overrule precedents when there is a strong justification. This delicate balance between stability and flexibility allows the law to evolve over time while maintaining a predictable and fair system of justice.

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File Created:  08/07/2018

Last Modified:  07/10/2018

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