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When Should Court Precedent Stay Precedent?

Last updated on November 5, 2023

Several landmark decisions in recent years beg the question: should the Supreme Court overturn its own decisions, and in what cases might it be valid?

I believe the Court must not wholly regard the interpretation of the Constitution as subject to the whims of the political or social climate, because the legislative branch provides this representative function. The distinct role of the court system is to maintain consistency in the rule of law, which operates as a prerequisite for the existence of any law to begin with. So, in most cases, the Supreme Court ought to adhere to past precedents.

Yet, the Court also must deliver the most just decisions possible, sometimes necessitating change from previous decisions. Therefore, certain circumstances dictate revisiting precedent. 

Since the application of the law is only effective insofar as it is consistent, the fundamental purpose of our judicial system is to treat “like cases alike” and preserve uniformity in this manner. Consistent decision-making is derived from reliance upon previous decisions and rulings, a principle called stare decisis. The further we stray from stare decisis, the more likely we are to adjudicate arbitrarily: radical changes in precedent result in the Court failing to uphold itself to its legal precedent. 

The Court should resist overturning precedent when it’s entrenched to the point of becoming “precedent upon precedent” or establishing a constitutional right. Overruling such decisions subjects individuals to uncertainty as to whether their fundamental conditions of life will remain protected. According to ABC News legal analyst Kate Shaw, the first ever instance of revoking a constitutional right was the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The decision has denied millions of women the legal right to abortion and control over their bodily autonomy. 

There are two implications of doctrinal instability. First, the frequent overturning of precedent minimizes the general role of precedent in decisions of lower courts. This exacerbates the arbitrary application of the law across the judicial system. Secondly, inconsistency violates the perception that the deliverance of justice is impartial and apolitical, which diminishes public faith in the government. Preserving the American court system’s respect for precedent is incredibly important. 

Nevertheless, it would be illogical to deem Supreme Court decisions irreversible: many historical determinations can be unjust or flawed. They may be “unworkable,” rendered obsolete by societal changes such as technological advances, or completely disconnected from contemporary societal values. A reconsideration of precedent, when accomplished appropriately in select cases, upholds the Supreme Court’s duty to deliver equal justice to Americans. For instance, overturning Plessy v. Ferguson was instrumental in dismantling segregation. Questioning precedent also demonstrates to the public that the Court is self-accountable, which fosters trust. 

Stare decisis has been so fundamental to the court system’s operations that adherence to precedent should be prioritized in decision-making. However, this does not justify turning a blind eye to faulty historical rulings, demanding that the Court strike a careful balance.

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