Civics Learning Project will be dedicating April’s Current Events posts to one major topic: the United States Supreme Court. In subsequent weeks, we will examine cases currently before, or recently decided by the Supreme Court, but before we do, we want to take time to examine the role of precedent in the U.S. legal system.
Precedent is a word commonly used outside of law referring to something that has come before that serves as an example to follow. In the U.S. judicial system, precedent, also known as stare decisis, refers to a case ruling that is considered as authority for determining subsequent cases involving similar fact patterns or legal issues. While legislative branches make laws, and executive branches carry out and enforce those laws, the judicial system is tasked with the interpretation of the law. In the U.S., the judicial system serves to determine the meaning of a law, as it relates to the facts presented in a case and how the law or laws in question apply to those specific circumstances. Typically, judges begin their interpretation by referring to prior cases and case law to understand the application of the law in earlier cases.
According to many, stare decisis provides much of the basis for U.S. law and its judicial interpretation. Advocates for its application, following how prior cases were decided, hold that such a system helps provide predictability to a society and its agreed upon rules. Advocates go on to note that people are assured that one person would be treated as any other person if precedent is followed. In Federalist Paper #78, Alexander Hamilton spelled out the importance of precedent: “To avoid an arbitrary discretion in the courts, it is indispensable that they should be bound down by strict rules and precedents, which serve to define and point out their duty in every particular case that comes before them.”
While precedent has been integral in U.S. legal history, it has not always been applied. As American society has changed, so to has the Supreme Courts’ decisions on issues that already had clear judicial track records. In these cases, precedent was overruled and the courts took new directions. Examples include the United States Supreme Court decision to famously overrule the concept of ‘separate but equal’ in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which threw out the precedent set in a previous Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson.
This week’s Current Events resources examine the concept of judicial precedent in United States and the discussions around its adherence and disregard. The resources shared provide information and context to the courts decision making process, the vacatur (setting aside) of lower court rulings and how precedent’s role has helped shape society.
Essential Questions, Vocabulary & Extend the Resources:
- What is judicial precedent?
- What are the societal pros and cons of an independent judiciary?
- Historically, how have judges, especially Supreme Court Justices, determined their rulings on cases?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of stare decisis?
- What is vacatur?
- In your opinion, what circumstances should lead to a court abandoning judicial precedent when making a ruling?
- In your opinion, when should a court use vacatur?
Click here for a hardcopy of the Essential Questions and Judicial Precedent Vocabulary
Click here for a hardcopy of Extension Activities CLP suggests implementing with this content
Precedent and the Supreme Court, Civics 101: A Podcast, NPR
What’s so important about legal precedent?, Stuff You Should Know, November 8, 2022
Roe & Departure From Precedent in the Supreme Court, Not Another Politics Podcast, The University of Chicago, June 22, 2022
What’s going on with Munsingwear?, SCOTUStalk, SCOTUS blog, January 23, 2023
Understanding Stare Decisis, American Bar Association
Precedent, Cornell Law School
Judicial Precedent and Constitutional Interpretation, Constitution Annotated, United States Congress
Symposium: The importance of respecting precedent, SCOTUS blog
Vacatur, Cornell Law School
Disregarding Precedent Can Harm Judicial Legitimacy, Kagan Says, Bloomberg Law, September 12, 2022
After Roe ruling, is ‘stare decisis’ dead? How the Supreme Court’s view of precedent is evolving, ABC News, June 24, 2022
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is lone dissenter as Supreme Court vacates abortion ruling, Yahoo! News, March 23, 2023
Kavanaugh Gave Private Assurances. Collins Says He ‘Misled’ Her., The New York Times, June 24, 2022
The Supreme Court has overturned precedent dozens of times in the past 60 years – History Thursday, Ohio Capital Journal, September 30, 2021
In rare win for people on death row, justices chide Arizona for ignoring Supreme Court precedent, SCOTUS blog, February 23, 2023
When overturning precedent expanded our rights, Star Tribune, March 16, 2023
How the Supreme Court Is Erasing Consequential Decisions in the Lower Courts, The New York Times, November 29, 2022
The Importance of Precedent in the Decisions of the Supreme Court: Lesson Plan, PBS Learning Media
Bell Ringer: Purpose and Importance of Judicial Precedent, C-SPAN Classroom
Lesson Plan: Federalist 78, C-SPAN Classroom
Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!: Simulating the Supreme Court, EDSITEment!
Resources for Younger Students:
Argument Wars, iCivics
The Supreme Court: Getting It “Right”?, Newsela, September 29, 2019