Precedent

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Precedent refers to a court decision that is considered as authority for deciding subsequent cases involving identical or similar facts, or similar legal issues. Precedent is incorporated into the doctrine of stare decisis and requires courts to apply the law in the same manner to cases with the same facts. Some judges have stated that precedent ensures that individuals in similar situations are treated alike instead of based on a particular judge’s personal views.

If the facts or issues of a case differ from those in a previous case, the previous case cannot be precedent. The Supreme Court in Cooper Industries, Inc. v. Aviall Services, Inc. reiterated that “[q]uestions which merely lurk on the record, neither brought to the attention of the court nor ruled upon, are not to be considered as . . . precedent[].” Therefore, a prior decision serves as precedent only for issues, given the particular facts, that the court explicitly considered in reaching its decision.

Precedent is generally established by a series of decisions. Sometimes, a single decision can create precedent. For example, a single statutory interpretation by the highest court of a state is generally considered originally part of the statute.

[Last updated in May of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]