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2.9 Legitimacy of the Judicial Branch

8 min readfebruary 4, 2023

Akhilesh Shivaramakrishnan

Akhilesh Shivaramakrishnan

Riya Patel

Riya Patel


AP US Government 👩🏾‍⚖️

240 resources
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Introduction

The ideology and personal beliefs of Supreme Court justices can play a role in whether they choose to follow or reject precedents, and changes in the composition of the Court through presidential appointments can lead to shifts in its interpretation of the law and the precedents it upholds. However, the principle of stare decisis is still highly influential in the Court's decision-making, and changes to precedents usually occur gradually over time rather than as a result of a single decision.

Key Terms

  • Precedent: A legal decision or set of decisions made in earlier, similar cases that serves as a guide or reference for future cases.
  • Stare decisis: The legal principle that courts should follow precedents set by earlier, similar cases, in order to maintain consistency and predictability in the law.
  • Overrule: The act of a higher court overturning a previous legal decision made by a lower court.
  • Ideology: A set of beliefs, values, and principles that shape an individual's perspective and decision-making.
  • Presidential appointment: The process by which the President of the United States nominates individuals to fill federal court vacancies, including those on the Supreme Court, which must be confirmed by the Senate.
  • Consistency: The quality of being consistent, or conforming to a set of rules or standards.
  • Predictability: The quality of being predictable, or capable of being forecast or expected.

Key Questions

  • What is the principle of stare decisis and why is it important in the legal system?
  • How do courts balance the principle of stare decisis with the need to adapt to changing circumstances and new legal issues?
  • Can the Supreme Court overrule previous decisions and set new precedents?
  • How does the ideology of Supreme Court justices impact their decision-making with regards to precedents and stare decisis?
  • How do presidential appointments and changes in the composition of the Supreme Court affect the precedents it upholds and the principle of stare decisis?
  • How do lower courts reconcile conflicting precedents from different levels of the judiciary?
  • How does the principle of stare decisis differ across different legal systems and jurisdictions?

What is the principle of stare decisis and why is it important in the legal system?

Stare decisis is a Latin term that means "to stand by decided matters." In the legal system, it refers to the principle that courts should generally follow the decisions made in earlier, similar cases. The idea is that by following precedent, the law will be applied consistently and predictably, which helps to promote stability, fairness, and the rule of law.
The principle of stare decisis is important because it provides guidance to courts, litigants, and society on how legal issues will be decided in the future. It allows courts to build upon and refine previous decisions, and to avoid relitigating issues that have already been resolved. By following precedent, courts also help to ensure that the law remains stable and predictable, even as society and legal issues evolve over time.
However, while stare decisis is a fundamental principle in the legal system, it is not absolute. Courts have the power to overrule previous decisions and establish new precedents when they find that the previous decisions are unjust or outdated, or when new legal issues arise that were not addressed in earlier cases.

How do courts balance the principle of stare decisis with the need to adapt to changing circumstances and new legal issues?

Balancing the principle of stare decisis with the need to adapt to changing circumstances and new legal issues is a challenging task for courts. On the one hand, stare decisis promotes stability and predictability in the law by encouraging courts to follow precedents set by earlier cases. On the other hand, the law and society are constantly evolving, and there may be circumstances where a previous decision no longer accurately reflects the current state of the law or society's values and needs.
To balance these considerations, courts engage in a process of legal reasoning to determine whether to follow or depart from precedent. This may involve considering the reasoning and facts of the previous decision, the broader legal and societal context in which the decision was made, and the potential impact of following or rejecting the precedent.
In some cases, courts may distinguish the facts of the current case from the facts of the precedent, and apply the precedent only to the extent it is consistent with the current case. In other cases, courts may find that a previous decision is no longer viable due to changes in the law or society, and overrule the precedent in order to establish a new one.
Ultimately, the balance between the principle of stare decisis and the need to adapt to changing circumstances and new legal issues is an ongoing process that is subject to ongoing evaluation and reevaluation by the courts.

Can the Supreme Court overrule previous decisions and set new precedents?

The Supreme Court has the power to overrule previous decisions and set new precedents. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States, and its decisions serve as binding precedent for all other courts in the country. As such, when the Supreme Court issues a ruling, it can effectively overrule any previous decisions made by lower courts that are inconsistent with its ruling.
In practice, the Supreme Court exercises its power to overrule previous decisions relatively rarely. This is because the principle of stare decisis, which encourages courts to follow precedents set by earlier cases, is an important part of the legal system. The Supreme Court generally views its role as one of interpreting and refining the law, rather than upending it.
However, there have been instances where the Supreme Court has overturned previous decisions in order to reflect changes in the law or societal values. For example, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Supreme Court overruled the "separate but equal" doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), finding that separate educational facilities for African American and white students were inherently unequal.

How does the ideology of Supreme Court justices impact their decision-making with regards to precedents and stare decisis?

The ideology of Supreme Court justices can play a significant role in their decision-making with regards to precedents and stare decisis. Ideology refers to a justice's political, legal, or philosophical views and beliefs, and it can influence their interpretation of the law and their approach to deciding cases.
Justices who hold a more conservative ideology may be more likely to follow precedent and uphold existing precedents, viewing stability and predictability in the law as important values. On the other hand, justices with a more liberal ideology may be more likely to question existing precedents and consider the need to adapt the law to changing circumstances and societal values.
In some cases, a justice's ideology may lead them to place more weight on certain factors when deciding whether to follow or depart from precedent. For example, a justice who is more concerned with individual rights may be more likely to overrule a precedent that is seen as limiting those rights, while a justice who places more emphasis on states' rights may be more likely to uphold a precedent that protects state autonomy.
It's important to note that ideology is not the only factor that influences a justice's decision-making. Justices may also be influenced by the specific facts and legal arguments in a case, their understanding of the role of the Supreme Court, and the dynamics of the Court as an institution.

How do presidential appointments and changes in the composition of the Supreme Court affect the precedents it upholds and the principle of stare decisis?

Presidential appointments and changes in the composition of the Supreme Court can significantly affect the precedents it upholds and the principle of stare decisis. The President of the United States has the power to appoint Supreme Court justices, and changes in the composition of the Court can alter the balance of ideological and political perspectives on the Court.
When a new justice is appointed, they bring their own ideology, legal training, and experiences to the Court, and this can influence the decisions they make. If several justices are appointed by the same President, or if the Court experiences a significant shift in its ideological makeup, this can alter the Court's overall approach to precedents and stare decisis.
For example, if a President appoints justices who hold more conservative views, the Court may be more likely to follow precedent and uphold existing precedents. On the other hand, if a President appoints justices who hold more liberal views, the Court may be more likely to question existing precedents and consider the need to adapt the law to changing circumstances and societal values.
In some cases, changes in the composition of the Court may lead to the reversal of previous decisions and the establishment of new precedents. This can happen when a majority of the justices on the Court no longer believe that a previous decision was correctly decided, or when they believe that the law or societal values have changed to the point where a previous decision is no longer viable.

How do lower courts reconcile conflicting precedents from different levels of the judiciary?

When lower courts face conflicting precedents from different levels of the judiciary, they must reconcile the conflicting precedents in order to reach a decision. This can be a complex process that requires a careful consideration of the legal principles and facts of the case at hand.
In general, lower courts must follow the precedents established by higher courts within their jurisdiction. For example, if a federal district court is faced with conflicting precedents from two different circuit courts of appeals, the district court must follow the precedent established by the circuit court of appeals that has jurisdiction over the district court.
When lower courts are faced with conflicting precedents from the same level of the judiciary, they may attempt to distinguish the facts of the case at hand from the facts of the conflicting precedent, or they may reconcile the conflicting precedents by considering their underlying legal principles.
In some cases, lower courts may be able to resolve conflicting precedents by relying on persuasive authority, such as decisions from other jurisdictions, or by referring the case to a higher court for resolution.

How does the principle of stare decisis differ across different legal systems and jurisdictions?

The principle of stare decisis, or the idea that prior judicial decisions should be followed, can differ across different legal systems and jurisdictions.
In common law systems, such as those used in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, the principle of stare decisis is considered to be a cornerstone of the legal system. Judges in these systems are generally bound by the precedents established by higher courts, and they must follow those precedents unless they are overruled or distinguished by a higher court.
In some civil law systems, such as those used in France, Germany, and Italy, the principle of stare decisis is not as strongly emphasized. In these systems, courts may be more likely to re-examine the law and to change their approach based on new legal arguments or changing circumstances.
In some jurisdictions, the principle of stare decisis may be subject to certain exceptions, such as where the law has changed or where the prior decision was based on an error of law or fact. In these cases, the court may be free to depart from prior precedent and establish a new precedent.
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