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What Is a Binding Precedent?

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  • Written By: Alexis W.
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 18 April 2014
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Binding precedent refers to existing law that must be followed. Such precedent exists within common law jurisdictions that recognize judicially made law. Generally, it follows the doctrine of stare decisis, which means "maintain what has been decided and do not alter that which has been established."

Certain countries and jurisdictions follow a common law system of law. For example, England and most states within the United States, with the exception of Louisiana, use this type of system. It is an alternative to a civil law system, which is used by other countries including France.

In a common law system, when a judge makes a ruling on a case, that ruling becomes the law. For example, if a judge presiding over a contract law case says that the parties signing the contract have a duty to read before they sign, then it becomes the law that any parties signing a contract have a duty to read it. Judge made law, also called common law or case law, is the law and remains the law unless the state or federal legislature passes a different rule changing the common law. Judges can also define laws passed by the legislature, and those definitions and interpretations also become the law.

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All of the body of law made by the judges is referred to as precedent. Only some precedent, however, is binding precedent. Whether precedent is considered binding or not depends on who made the rule.

There is a hierarchy of courts within the US: courts of appeals, for example, are higher in importance than local courts in most states. Supreme courts are the highest court of all, except in New York where the Supreme Court is the lowest court. When a higher court makes a ruling, it is binding on all courts at that level and lower. For example, if the Supreme Court makes a ruling, it is binding on appellate courts.

Each state and the federal government also have their own court systems. A state court ruling is only binding precedent on other courts at or below its level within the state. A federal court ruling is only binding precedent on other courts at or below its level on the federal level. If the Supreme Court of the United States makes a ruling, it is the highest court of all and is considered binding precedent on any and all other courts within the United States.

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Discuss this Article

NathanG
Post 4

@nony - Yes, judicial precedent can be overturned. If it is, however, it’s because the judges usually appeal to some other precedent that they bring to bear on that case, a precedent that has not been considered before.

In this way, they can honor precedent while overturning it at the same time. That’s why the process of picking judicial nominees has been so politicized. Each political party sees it as a way to stack the deck in favor of advancing their political agenda.

nony
Post 3

@Misscoco - I’ve always found it instructive to watch congressional hearings of Supreme Court justices. Congressmen have to walk a tight-rope in how they question a judicial nominee. In one hearing I saw on television, senators pressed the nominee over and over to determine how he might rule in a case involving an established, albeit controversial, law.

The subject of legal precedent comes up often. They ask if the justice respects legal precedent; if they understand that prior rulings on some of these hot button political issues are established, binding precedents.

Judicial nominees of course always respond that they respect legal precedent; that they would not come to the court as activist judges.

No judicial nominee admits what we all know and fear: verbal commitments to precedent aside, judicial nominees come with political biases, which may in fact affect how they rule.

live2shop
Post 2

@Misscoco - My father is a lawyer and I talked a bit with him about the issue. There has been discussions about this in the legal community lately.

On the "pro" side of case law - someone who is going before a judge can pretty much figure out how his case will go, if the circumstances are the same as cases that came before. If the case law needs to be changed, the legislature can do that.

On the "con" side - if the judge uses case law incorrectly, it can continue to be used improperly. Sometimes, in legal cases, a judge can make decisions based on case law that are changed little by little until they are very different from constitutional laws.

Legal matters are very complicated. But, I think it's important from time to time to make some changes to keep things as fair as possible.

Misscoco
Post 1

About twenty years ago, I took legal classes to become a paralegal. I remember studying the doctrine of binding precedent and relying on case law. Is relying on case law really the fairest way to decide a court case?

We can't have judges using a few cases of law to decide a case. Judges need to be consistent, not helter skelter when deciding a case.

Does anyone have opinions on the pros and cons of using case law?

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