What does "Stare Decisis" Mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Stare decisis is a legal principle which dictates that courts cannot contravene precedent. They must uphold prior decisions, to literally “stand by previous decisions.” Many legal system include the doctrine of stare decisis in their legal structure and this doctrine can be applied to many different types of cases. Some people have criticized the adherence to precedent, arguing that it has some clear flaws, including the fact that setting precedent can sometimes involve contravening previous precedent, which means that there would be no precedent to follow if judges were never willing to go against older legal decisions.

Stare decisis is the principle that courts must stand behind legal precedent.
Stare decisis is the principle that courts must stand behind legal precedent.

The concept of stare decisis can manifest in two different ways. In the first case, lower courts are expected to abide by rulings from higher courts. If a higher court has established a precedent in a similar case, the lower court must follow the decision entered by the higher court. If it wishes to go against the precedent set by the upper court, the lower court must be able to demonstrate that the decision contradicts the law or is unjust in some way.

The stare decisis doctrine is designed to keep courts consistent.
The stare decisis doctrine is designed to keep courts consistent.

Courts are also expected to abide by precedents set in that court before, whether the court involved is lower or higher. The interpretation of the law should remain reasonably consistent through time and stare decisis reminds courts that they have an obligation to uphold their own prior decisions. Again, the validity of a decision may be challenged for the purpose of overruling it and setting a new precedent.

The obvious problem with stare decisis is that if a previous judicial decision is unfair, it must be overturned in order to set a new precedent. The infamous “separate but equal” doctrine in the United States is a good example of this situation. This doctrine was used to support the legality of segregation. Later, the court recognized that this doctrine was in fact not fair, and did not abide by the spirit of the Constitution. As a result, it was overturned to rule that segregation was not legal. If the court had stuck strictly with stare decisis, any challenge to segregation would have been struck down in accordance with the prior separate but equal ruling.

This doctrine is designed to keep courts consistent. Stare decisis can also help courts avoid politicization, because it allows them to focus on enforcing the law as it is currently understood, rather than responding to cases in accordance with current political fads.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Does stare decisis always apply?


The judge and the attorneys sure have to do a lot of study and research to find cases that can be used as precedents for their present case. I would think that it would take a lot of fact-finding to make sure which precedent cases fit with the facts of their current case.

I'm sure that sometimes they have to go back many years to find an acceptable precedent case.

I have faith in our justice system. I think that most of the time, justice prevails in court cases. I've been on a jury a couple of times, and I was quite impressed by the system.


Stare decisis is an important guide to follow when decisions are made in the court room. We wouldn't be following true justice if we didn't look back at very similar cases to use when making a legal decision.

But,if the facts of a case are very unusual and different from any previous case, then the court must make a new precedent. And, if a previous case and its decision did not follow the Constitution, then it has to be overturned. No one would want current court decisions made to follow precedent in a decision that is not legal.

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