Part One: Personal Reflection
Think of a time when a parent, guardian, or teacher made a decision
about something based on a similar situation in the past. (At this
point, don’t write anything down. Just think quietly.)
Now think about whether his or her decision was fair. Why or why not?
When your teacher asks, you may volunteer to tell about the
example you thought of and to give your opinion about whether the
situation was handled fairly. (Please do not name names.)
Now think of a time when you believe your parent, guardian, or
teacher should not have applied the same old rules or reasons to a new
situation. Was his or her response fair? Why or why not?
Finally, think about a time when your parent, guardian, or
teacher seemed to ignore his or her own previous decision. Did that seem
fair? Why or why not?
Part Two: Class Discussion
Answer these questions with other students in your class:
What are the benefits and risks of sticking by the known rules?
What are the benefits and risks of changing the rules for new situations?
We have just been thinking and talking about something very similar to the term precedent, a court decision that guides future cases with similar questions.
The Supreme Court justices wrestle with the issue of precedent on a
daily basis, knowing that their decisions will affect not just the
people in a particular case, but potentially millions of other Americans
who could be in similar situations in the future. Their questions, like
those in our reflection activity, are typically about when precedents
should be honored and when they should be reversed. Different justices
often have different views on this -- some even change their views over
The term stare decisis is a legal term from Latin that means "to stand by things decided." This means to apply precedent.
Part Three: What the Justices Think About Precedent and Stare Decisis
You will be working with two other students on this assignment.
Divide up the quotes below so you each have the same number of
quotes to work with. (If necessary, you can double up and have two of
you working on the same quote.)
Start by reading your quotes silently. As you read them,
underline passages you think are particularly important. Circle words
or passages that you have questions about. Then try to put it in your
own words or summarize it.
When all three of you finished reading the quotes, explain them
to each other and then work together to answer the questions at the
bottom of the page.
Justices Sandra Day O’Conner and Stephen G. Breyer
in a taped interview with students participating in a question and
answer session. When asked about what might influence the justices to
overturn a precedent, Justice O’Connor said:
“Well I think you have to be able to persuade at least five
members of this nine-member Court that an earlier judgment and opinion
decided by this Court is now clearly wrong. That is possible to do. We
can be persuaded at times that something we decided earlier has become,
over time, no longer defensible.
"And the most clear big example of that was in Brown v. Board of Education when the Supreme Court decided to overrule the old Plessy v.
Ferguson principle that you could have separate public facilities for
people based on race provided they were roughly the same. You know, the
same school, one for people of the black race, one for people of the
white race. That’s what Plessy said was all right. The members of this
Court unanimously concluded that just was not valid and it overturned
"So what standard is required? It’s just a standard of persuading
at least five members of the Court that an earlier precedent is clearly
wrong and shouldn’t remain the law of the nation.”
Justices Sandra Day O’Conner and Stephen G. Breyer in a taped
interview with students participating in a question and answer session. After Justice O'Connor's answer about what might influence the justices
to overturn a precedent, Justice Breyer added:
“That last phrase [persuading at least five members of the Court
that an earlier precedent is clearly wrong and shouldn’t remain the law
of the nation] is very important. Every one of us understands that if
you change the law too often, even when it was wrong before, people
cannot live their lives. They can’t plan how to live; they can’t plan
their societies. So no one thinks just because a case is wrong that you
are going to overturn it. They have to both think it was wrong and
think it’s harmful and causing a lot of trouble.
"Now, if you said never overturn a case, we’d still live in a
society that had racial segregation. That would be terrible. So, of
course, sometimes you have to overturn a case. But five people
[justices] have to agree it was wrong then and it’s wrong now and it’s
causing a lot of harm to the point where even though people have to plan
their lives, we better get rid of it. That happens very rarely.”
John Roberts at his United States Senate confirmation hearing, September 2005:
“… the principles of stare decisis look at a number of factors. Settled expectations is one of them… Whether or not particular
precedents have proved to be unworkable is another consideration on the
other side …I do think it is a jolt to the legal system when you
overrule a precedent. Precedent plays an important role in promoting
stability and evenhandedness."
Stephen Breyer, writing for the Court in Randall v. Sorrell, the Vermont campaign finance reform decision, 2006:
“The Court has often recognized the ‘fundamental importance of
stare decisis, the basic legal principle that commands judicial respect
for a court’s earlier decisions and the rules of law they embody. The
court has pointed out that stare decisis ‘promotes the evenhanded,
predictable and consistent development of legal principles, fosters
reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and
perceived integrity of the judicial process.’
"Stare decisis thereby avoids the instability and unfairness that
accompany disruption of settled legal expectations. For this reason,
the rule of law demands that adhering to our prior case law be the
norm. Departure from precedent is exceptional and requires special
Questions to Consider
Answer these with the two other students in your group.
Based on what you read, why is adhering to precedent (or stare decisis) important?
Based on what you read, what do you think would be acceptable reasons for reversing an existing precedent?
What do you think the result would be if the Court ever abandoned the precedent set in the Miranda case? Would that be a good or bad outcome? Explain your answer.