I only got to see small parts of the Samuel Alito Supreme Court confirmation hearings, but the phrase stare decisis kept popping up. I couldn’t go two minutes without hearing Alito say stare decisis. So I went off to see what stare decisis was, and why it was so important.
Stare decisis is the legal principle of precedent. It’s a Latin phrase that means, “to stand by things decided.” In the case of the Supreme Court, it means simply that the court will almost always abide by its previous rulings.
I’m not going to go too in depth on the principle here, as most of my audience are not lawyers and wouldn’t understand a bit of it, but I do want to touch on some important points with respect to stare decisis.
Stare decisis is an important legal principle, as it gives continuity and consistency to the judicial system. If a court has ruled one way given a particular set of facts, then in another case with the same or substantially similar set of facts, the court can be expected to rule the same way.
However, a problem occurs when the court makes a mistake.
In Kelo, the Supreme Court ruled that eminent domain could be used for private economic development, that is, taking from the poor and giving to the rich. And in Raich, the Court ruled that marijuana grown in one’s own backyard, never sold, given or otherwise transferred to anyone else, somehow constitutes interstate commerce.
The problem with respect to stare decisis is that these two mistakes now become precedent which later courts will rely on. These cases will stand until some future Supreme Court is convinced there is a special justification to overturn them.
Some claim that stare decisis can actually be used to subvert the idea of justice, and I suspect we’re going to see that happening in the very near future.
I don’t have all the answers, but one thing I do know is a Supreme Court justice must respect precedent, but also be willing to overturn it if the precedent itself is unconstitutional. That’s a special justification which certainly seems it should qualify.