Stare Decisis Doctrine: Definition & Example Cases

The doctrines of stare decisis and precedent are the foundations of our American common law system. This lesson explains what these doctrines are and how they are used.
Difference in Precedent and Stare Decisis
Stare decisis is a Latin term. It means ‘to stand by things decided.’ Stare decisis is a doctrine used in all court cases and with all legal issues. A doctrine is simply a principle, or an instruction, but it’s not necessarily a rule that cannot ever be broken.
The doctrine of stare decisis means that courts look to past, similar issues to guide their decisions. The past decisions are known as precedent. Precedent is a legal principle or rule that is created by a court decision. This decision becomes an example, or authority, for judges deciding similar issues later. Stare decisis is the doctrine that obligates courts to look to precedent when making their decisions. These two principles allow American law to build case-by-case, and make our legal system a common law system.
For example, let’s say that Blue borrows Red’s lawnmower while Red is on vacation. Blue doesn’t ask Red for permission. Blue accidentally breaks Red’s lawnmower, but he doesn’t tell Red. He simply places the lawnmower back in Red’s garage. When Red returns home and discovers the broken lawnmower, he demands that Blue buy him a new one. The two end up in court, and the court decides that Blue does owe Red the money required for Red to fix his lawnmower; however, Blue does not have to buy Red a new lawnmower.
This decision becomes precedent. From now on, lower courts in the same jurisdiction are expected to follow this new rule: When a borrower breaks a borrowee’s item and was using the borrowee’s item without permission in the first place, the borrower must pay to have the item fixed. Lower courts will follow this new precedent because the doctrine of stare decisis tells them they should.
Citing Precedent
So, stare decisis is essentially ‘the rule of precedent.’ Courts cite precedent when a court has already considered a particular legal issue and the court has already issued a ruling.
For example, now let’s say Green borrows Yellow’s car. Yellow left the car at Green’s house the night before and left the keys in it. He told Green he could move it if he needed to, but he did not give Green any permission to drive the car anywhere. Green gets up to go to work and finds that his own car will not start. Because he’s already late, he borrows Yellow’s car. Then, on his way to work, Green accidentally runs over a curb and damages Yellow’s car. When Yellow sues Green for the amount of his insurance deductible, the court will cite to the case of Red v. Blue.
State Courts and Precedent
Under the doctrine of stare decisis, courts are expected to follow their own previous rulings and also the rulings from higher courts within the same court system. This means that the Texas state appellate courts will follow their own precedent, and that of the Texas Supreme Court, and also that of the United States Supreme Court. But the district courts in Texas are not obligated to follow rulings from the appellate courts of South Carolina.
All courts are obligated to follow the rulings of the United States Supreme Court, because this is the highest court in the nation, and it has the final say. If the case of Red v. Blue was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, then the courts in Texas and the courts in South Carolina must follow that precedent. If the case of Red v. Blue was decided by the Texas Supreme Court, the South Carolina Supreme Court is under no obligation to follow it. However, South Carolina may look at the Texas rule for guidance when setting its own precedent.
Think of it this way: When I make a rule in my house, I will try to make all future rules to be in keeping with that rule. For instance, if I decide my kids cannot watch TV after 6:00 P.M., then I will not make a follow-up rule that the kids must watch the news at 9:00 P.M.
I am expected to keep my rules, and my kids are expected to follow my rules. But the Smith kids, who live across the street, do not have to follow my rules. Mrs. Smith might look at my rules and decide they are a good idea for her family, too, but that, of course, is her decision.
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