The 2020 Supreme Court Hearing: Precedents and Stare Decisis

Image obtained from CNN

Yesterday was day three of the Senate Judiciary Committee Supreme Court confirmation hearing for President Trump's nominee to replace the late Justice Ginsburg, Amy Coney Barrett, full of technical difficulties, unanswered questions, hyperbole, and forgotten constitutional rights. Over the course of the day, the topic of judicial precedent continued to be brought up, along with the legal principle of stare decisis

In the judicial world, when a court rules on a case, that ruling becomes a precedent for future cases dealing with similar situations or similar legal issues. The term stare decisis, which was mentioned many times during the previous days of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings and is Latin for "to stand by a decision", is the doctrine that a court must follow the legal precedents set forth in prior cases asking a similar legal question. This principle works both in what is called "horizontally" and "vertically." Vertical stare decisis refers to the doctrine that says all lower courts must abide by the precedent set forth in a higher court. It is why when the Supreme Court makes a ruling, it is considered to be the final ruling, as all lower courts must respect that precedent. Horizontal stare decisis is the practice of higher courts to stand by their own precedents in previous legal rulings. So if a hypothetical case were to state that legally, the color maroon is a shade of red, then a subsequent case may stand by that ruling and say that the color maroon is a shade of red. This could also be extended to a similar legal question of whether or not teal is a shade of blue, or if tangerine is a shade of orange. Each precedent can, in essence, be built upon by being cited in subsequent cases. An example of this, which was referenced in yesterday's confirmation hearing, is the case of Griswold v. Connecticut. In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled that a married couple has a right to privacy which cannot be infringed upon by a state law banning the use of contraceptives. The right to privacy cited in the Griswold precedent returns in the ruling of Roe v. Wade, in which the right to privacy was specified to include a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy. The use of Griswold as a precedent for Roe v. Wade here demonstrates a real-life example of the court building upon their precedents.

The big difference between vertical stare decisis and horizontal stare decisis is when it comes to overturning a precedent. A lower court cannot overturn the precedent set by a higher court (vertical stare decisis) but a court can overturn its own precedent (horizontal stare decisis). One of the most notable examples of a court overturning its own precedent would be in Brown v. Board of Education when the Supreme Court ruled that separate learning facilities are inherently unequal and overturned the precedent upholding the segregation of races and the Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine known as "separate but equal".

Overall, precedents and stare decisis are extremely important principles in the judicial arena. They allow the courts to cite previous court decisions in rulings and help to ensure the legal questions being asked and legal issues being dealt with are applied evenly across the nation. 


If you have any questions or would like to join the conversation, please feel free to drop a comment below! Like yesterday's post on judicial interpretation, this post is meant as an overview and clarification only. I do still anticipate that my future law-related posts may get more in-depth than this last-minute overview style, but for now, I hope you find this piece useful! Thanks for reading! :)

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