Doctrine of stare decisis
The doctrine of stare decisis (which means “stand by what has been decided”) is the legal principle underlying judicial precedent. When a court lays down a principle of law as applying to a particular set of facts, the court will apply that principle to all future cases where the facts are substantially similar. Under stare decisis, a judicial decision made in one case is binding on all later cases with similar facts.
Ratio Decidendi and Obiter Dicta
A judicial decision contains two components, the ratio decidendi and obiter dicta. The ratio decidendi is the reason for the decision or the legal principle upon which the decision is based. This is the binding part of any court decision. Obiter dicta are the court’s expressions of opinion, which are not necessary to support the decision reached by the court. Obiter dicta consist of everything stated in the decision other than the actual reason for the decision. Obiter dicta are not binding.
Binding precedent refers to case law that courts have to follow. For example, the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States are binding on all other federal courts and on all state courts. The decisions of the highest state court are binding on all lower state courts. A decision of a court of appeals is conclusive evidence of the law within that court’s appellate district and binds the lower courts within that district. However, lower courts are not bound to follow a decision of a court of appeals of another judicial district. Where there is no direct precedent covering the case before the court, the court is free to decide the matter.
Decisions by Courts of Same Rank Decisions by courts of the same rank (for example, two Ohio courts of appeal) can be considered by the other court but are not binding on it. An Ohio court of appeals is not bound by the decisions of the courts of appeals of other districts in Ohio, but the decisions of such sister courts are entitled to due consideration.
Decisions of Other State Courts The decision of another state’s courts can be followed where the reasoning is persuasive and rests on facts similar to the case being tried, but such decisions are not binding on the courts of the other state. For example, an Ohio common pleas court is not bound by a decision of an Iowa court of appeals. However, in deciding a pending Ohio case, the Ohio court could adopt the precedent set by the Iowa court.
Decisions of Lower Courts A higher court can choose to adopt the precedent of a lower court. For example, an Indiana court of appeals (a higher state court) could use a decision of an Indiana circuit court (a lower state court) in deciding a case.
Are judges always required to follow legal precedent?
Courts may deviate from a precedent if there is an obvious error in the earlier decision or if the principle of law established by the precedent is unreasonable. It is within a court’s discretion to overrule its own past decisions or precedents. However, the court should follow the established precedent unless there is a compelling reason for change. Of course, higher courts can overrule decisions made by lower courts. A court can also distinguish its case from the established precedent if the facts in the case before the court are different than those in the case that set the precedent.