Precedent . . . What’s it all about?

When you’re at a cocktail party, poetry reading or beach party you may want to impress your non-legal friends by using some of your Latin such as “res ipsa loquitur” or “stare decisis“.  It may make you sound more intelligent especially if you know what the Latin phrases mean.

The doctrine of  stare decisis is the foundation for all case research in the United States.  The doctrine means “to stand by and adhere to decisions and not disturb what is settled.”   The net result of the application of this doctrine to legal matters is that judges must follow the holdings or precedents that were previously decided in a matter involving the same or similar facts and legal issues.   Following this doctrine allows there to be predictability and consistency among opinions.

Precedent is what is used to determine what will be “stood by” or “adhered to” by the court in a given legal matter.  Therefore, determining what cases are precedent is a very significant determination.  Here are some simple rules that apply to precedent:

1.  A state court cannot bind another state court or a federal court by its decision

2.  Federal courts do not create binding precedent for state courts with the exception of the United States Supreme Court, and then only on an issue of federal law (Federal Question)

3.  A circuit court decision in the Federal system does not bind another circuit.

4.  A court is bound by the precedent of a court from the same or higher level (in the same jurisdiction).

In order to be precedent, a case must:

  • Be from the same Jurisdiction (e.g. State of California, Federal)
  • Be from a court at the same or higher level
  • Be current (no more recent cases which with a different result)
  • Have the same or similar facts and legal issues
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