Effect of Stare Decisis on Appellate Determinations

The principle of stare decisis ensures that judges stand by precedents.  Thus, when an issue has been previously brought to the court and a ruling already issued, courts subsequently deciding the issue must adhere to the prior ruling.[i] Proper judicial function requires appreciation of prior precedents.  The principle of stare decisis promotes the consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.  Thus, adhering to precedent is a wise policy because it is important that the applicable rule of law be settled.[ii]

However, stare decisis does not apply where the facts are essentially different.  The principles applied to one set of facts may be entirely inappropriate in a subsequent case, when a factual variance is introduced.  An appellate court should not consider overruling controlling precedent if it can dispose of an appeal on other grounds.  Courts need not follow a precedent if it is wrong, unjust or unwise.  Also, when a precedent has no relevance in light of modern reality, courts need not follow the precedent.  Such an abandonment of precedent will not destroy the policy of stare decisis.[iii]

The effect of precedents on the three tires of the U.S. judicial system (trial courts, intermediate appellate courts and high courts) can be summarized as follows:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court is not bound to follow the decisions of intermediate appellate courts;
  • A federal court of appeals is bound by the decisions of the U.S.Supreme Court;
  • A federal court of appeals is bound by prior decisions of its own circuit;
  • An intermediate appellate state court is bound by a controlling decision of the state supreme court;
  • State appellate courts are not bound by decisions of other states or federal courts except the U S Supreme Court;
  • A federal court is not bound by a state court’s determinations of federal law;
  • State courts are not bound to follow decisions of federal courts regarding state law;
  • A state supreme courts decision, interpreting the law of that jurisdiction, has controlling authority in all other state courts as well as in the federal courts;
  • The federal courts are bound to follow the decisions of the state supreme court in determining a matter on state law;
  • A federal court is also bound to follow a determination of state law which is certified by a state supreme court;
  • State appellate courts are not bound by decisions of other states or federal courts except the U S Supreme Court;
  • A state supreme court interpreting  provision of the Federal Constitution is bound by the interpretation of the U S Supreme Court;
  • The U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the federal constitution is not binding upon a state court’s interpretation of that state’s constitution;
  • A federal court is not bound by a state court’s determinations of federal law; and
  • A state court is not bound by federal courts’ decision on state law.

[i] Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey 505 US 833 (1992)

[ii] United States v. Scalarone, 54 M.J. 114 (C.A.A.F. 2000)

[iii] State v. Humpherys, 134 Idaho 657 (Idaho 2000)


Inside Effect of Stare Decisis on Appellate Determinations