Stare Decisis

The Latin term stare decisis refers to the doctrine of precedent, which obliges judges to make certain court decisions according to previous rulings made by a higher court in the same type of case. The purpose of stare decisis is to promote consistent, predictable rulings on cases of similar nature. While prior decisions often become precedent in the U.S., adherence is not absolute. To explore this concept, consider the following stare decisis definition.

Definition of Stare Decisis




  1. A legal doctrine in which a decision previously reached by a court is used as authority in all future cases that are based on the same basic circumstances or facts.


1782    Latin stāre dēcīsīs  (to stand by decided matters)

History of the Doctrine of Stare Decisis

The doctrine of stare decisis, or precedent law, has its beginning in 12th century England, when King Henry II established a unified system of deciding legal maters. In this system, referred to as “common law,” the decisions of the King’s judges in various regions were respected by the other judges in deciding similar cases. As the colonists came to America, they brought with them the common law system, including the principle of stare decisis. Over the centuries, the principle of stare decisis has also become known as “binding precedent,” or “binding authority.”

Which Courts Set Precedent

Within the hierarchy of the U.S. court system, the decisions of a higher court, such as an appellate court, or supreme court, become binding precedent, or obligatory stare decisis, on lower courts. In some cases, precedent set by a court of lateral jurisdiction, meaning a court at the same level, becomes binding authority, though more often, decisions made by lateral or lower courts are used as persuasive authority, rather than binding authority. This means that these decisions are used to guide the thought process of the judge, without requiring a certain ruling.

The degree to which a prior court decision is required to be used in other cases depends on such factors as the nature of the jurisdictions of both the prior and current case, the similarities between the facts of the prior and current cases, and the length of time since the prior decision was made. With this in mind, decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court hold the most sway as stare decisis, or binding authority, on other cases in every jurisdiction in the nation. Decisions made by state supreme courts are binding on lower courts of their own states, and are commonly used as persuasive authority in other states. Decisions made by appellate courts, whether federal or state, may become binding stare decisis on the trial courts beneath them, but must adhere to decisions of the courts above.

The Overturning of a Supreme Court Precedent

The U.S. Supreme Court is the source of the most decisions held as stare decisis in American courts. As such, it is a rare thing for the Court to overturn one of its own decisions that has been held as binding precedent. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a landmark decision in the matter of Plessy v. Ferguson, when it upheld the state of Louisiana’s “separate but legal” doctrine, which allowed racial segregation in public facilities. This decision held stare decisis for nearly 60 years, until the case of Brown v. Board of Education was heard in 1953.

In 1951, a civil lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Topeka, Kansas, by 13 parents on behalf of their 20 children. The plaintiffs demanded that the school district reverse its policy of racial segregation. At the time, state law allowed the school districts to maintain separate elementary schools for black and white students, but did not require it.

The matter was eventually taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, which returned a unanimous decision that racial discrimination in schools is unconstitutional. This decision surprised most people, not simply because it struck down educational discrimination, but because the Court ruled unanimously on the seriously divisive topic. Since the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the ban on racial segregation has become stare decisis, or binding precedent, on decisions of segregation and discrimination in all things.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a la has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.

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