When a court faces a legal argument, if a previous court has ruled on the same or a closely related issue, then the court will make their decision in alignment with the previous court’s decision. The previous deciding-court must have binding authority over the court; otherwise, the previous decision is merely persuasive authority. In Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises, the U.S. Supreme Court described the rationale behind stare decisis as “promot[ing] the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, foster[ing] reliance on judicial decisions, and contribut[ing] to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.”
The doctrine operates both horizontally and vertically. Horizontal stare decisis refers to a court adhering to its own precedent. For example, if the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals adhered to the ruling of a previous Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals case, that would be horizontal stare decisis. A court engages in vertical stare decisis when it applies precedent from a higher court. For example, if the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals adhered to a previous ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, that would be vertical stare decisis. Or, additionally, if the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York adhered to a previous ruling by the Second Circuit, that would be vertical stare decisis.
Although courts seldom overrule precedent, the U.S. Supreme Court in Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida explained that stare decisis is not an “inexorable command.” When prior decisions are “unworkable or are badly reasoned,” then the Supreme Court may not follow precedent, and this is “particularly true in constitutional cases.” For example, in deciding Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly renounced Plessy v. Ferguson, thereby refusing to apply the doctrine of stare decisis.
[Last updated in December of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]