October 2012 Vol. 111 No. 1 THE REVIEW

Stare Decisis and the Rule of Law: A Layered Approach

Jeremy Waldron

Stare decisis remains a controversial feature of the legal systems that recognize it. Some jurists argue that the doctrine is at odds with the rule of law; others argue that there are good rule-of-law arguments in favor of stare decisis. This Article considers one possible good rule-of-law argument. It suggests that we should approach stare decisis in a layered way, looking at what the rule of law requires of the various judges involved in the development of a precedent. One rule-of-law principle, the principle of constancy, counsels against lightly overturning such precedents as there are. But that is not in itself an argument for stare decisis since it presupposes that precedents have already been created. However, there is another principle, the principle of generality, which requires all judges to base their decisions on general norms and not just leave them as freestanding particulars. A third principle, the principle of institutional responsibility, requires subsequent judges not to give the lie to the use by precedent judges of certain general norms to determine their decisions. And finally, the fundamental principle of fidelity to law requires the precedent judge to approach her decision as far as she can by trying to figure out the implicit bearing of such existing law as there is on the case in front of her. Together, these principles make up a layered case-not an absolute case, but a strong and productive case-for stare decisis.

 

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