Precedent / Stare decisis:
When researching a legal issue, if a statute exists and that statute has been interpreted by a higher court in the jurisdiction, the lower courts are bound by the higher court’s interpretation. If there is no applicable statute, the court must look for case law that is binding.
A court’s decision can usually be divided into the following sections: introduction; issue(s); procedural history; analysis or rationale; dicta; and holding.
The introduction is usually a paragraph in which the court briefly explains the nature of the case, such as:
“This case involves a motor vehicle collision that occurred when, according to the plaintiff, the defendant’s vehicle struck the plaintiff’s vehicle in the rear.”
The issue is the question the court is asked to decide, such as:
“The issue presently before the court is into what types of proceedings one may intervene under Connecticut General Statutes § 22a-19.”
Most appellate court decisions include a few paragraphs that give the procedural history of the case. For example:
“This case was tried before the Superior Court five years ago, where the trial court ruled that the defendant could not be negligent without knowledge of the product’s defect. The Appellate Court reversed the trial court and remanded the case for a new trial. Upon remand and after a trial, the trial court held that the jury’s award was excessive and reduced the plaintiff’s award to $100. The plaintiff appealed, and the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s holding. We granted certiorari to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion in reducing the plaintiff’s award.”
The analysis or rationale of a case is just that – the analysis the court conducts to reach its decisions. It is usually a logical discussion of the applicable law, case law, statutory law or both, with references to other decisions and, often, public policy.
The holding of a decision is the court’s ultimate decision. For example:
“The court holds that one may not be liable for negligent design of a defective product where there is no proof that an alternate, safer design was available.”
Finally, dicta is a Latin term that refers to parts of a decision that are not crucial to the decision, but are simply the tangential opinions or analysis of the author. While dicta may be persuasive, it is not the legal basis for the decision. When citing a case, be careful to distinguish dicta from the actual rationale that the court uses to arrive at a conclusion, as dicta is not binding in that proceeding or on any future courts dealing with relevant issues.
The doctrine of stare decisis, another Latin phrase, refers to the doctrine that lower courts are bound by the appellate courts’ decisions, even if the trial court judge believes the higher authority is erroneous or illogical. Courts are bound by precedent only in their own jurisdictions, however. Therefore, an appellate court in Ohio is not required to follow a decision by the Supreme Court of California. See
While courts are bound by precedent in their own jurisdictions, the highest appellate court may overrule its earlier holdings. Additionally, as long as the highest appellate court has not affirmed the earlier holding, the intermediate appellate courts may overrule their earlier holdings.
There are two types of authority used by courts in resolving disputes: mandatory and persuasive. Mandatory authority refers to binding statutes and case law within the same jurisdiction. See
“The district court further relied on
Jenkins v. Haworth, Inc., 572 F.Supp. 591, 601 (W.D.Mich.1983)(holding that a terminated employee was no longer a shareholder, even though he had not yet surrendered his stock certificates nor received payment for them, because of a Buy/Sell agreement in the Shareholder contract similar to the one in this case). Jenkins is not mandatory authority. It is a federal district court opinion predicting what the Michigan state supreme court would do, not an authoritative interpretation from a state court.”
If a trial court faces a factual situation and dispute indistinguishable from a decision issued by an appellate court in the same jurisdiction, the trial court is bound by the appellate court’s holding. If, however, the two cases can be distinguished, the trial court is not necessarily bound.
Federal district courts are bound by the decisions of the court of appeals of the circuit in which the district court is located, but district courts are not bound by the decisions of other district courts or by decisions of the courts of appeals for other circuits. The courts of appeals are bound by their own decisions, but not by those of other courts of appeals. Finally, all federal courts are bound by the decisions of the United States Supreme Court. In some instances, especially for issues regarding the protection of constitutional rights, the entire United States is bound by the decisions of the United States Supreme Court.
Persuasive authority is just that – persuasive, but not binding. Examples of persuasive authority are: decisions from other jurisdictions; legislative history from other jurisdictions; decisions by courts on the same level in the same jurisdiction (i.e., by other trial courts); and scholarly analysis contained in legal literature. See
“Although various intermediate appellate [state] courts are not [binding on us], ... they are persuasive authority, and we must follow them when they are the best evidence of what [state] law is.”
When presented with different types of authority, a court values some sources of authority more than others. In other words, the court will find some authority more persuasive than others. Some factors the court may consider are:
Level of court: Decisions by the highest appellate courts are the most persuasive, followed by the intermediate appellate courts and then the trial courts.
Year of decision: Recent decisions are often more persuasive than older decisions.
Factual similarity: Cases that are factually similar and that address the same issues are called “on point” or "on all fours," and are most persuasive.
Type of decision: Majority decisions are more persuasive than concurring or dissenting opinions. Still, it is important to read concurring and dissenting opinions, as they may offer a different perspective on the legal issues at hand.
Author or judge: A judge is likely to look favorably upon other decisions that he or she has issued, or upon a decision issued by a judge with a good reputation.
Jurisdiction: Courts often give more weight to decisions issued by states nearby, as opposed to states across the country. A Connecticut court may give more weight to New York decisions than to those from Nevada. An exception to this general rule is that some states are at the forefront of certain legal issues, and thus, their courts' decisions carry extra weight. For example, California is one of the leaders in environmental protection, while Delaware courts are given extra deference when it comes to matters involving corporations.
Finally, a word about judicial activism. Judges, at least in theory, are supposed to arrive at a decision free of biases and sentiment. Just as judges do not enforce law, neither to do they make law. A judge is supposed to consider deference, predictability and uniformity and not be moved by his or her own political opinions. It is the legislature who is supposed to consider political opinions and, ideally, the will of its constituents. Be wary of decisions where the judge bases his or her decision on his or her own opinions rather than on the intent of the legislature or the applicable constitution.