Problems with Stare Decisis

The principle of stare decisis aims for legal stability by stating that future decisions can be predicted based on older decisions held by higher courts within the same jurisdiction within the same factual configuration.

The statement above is very ambitious. To understand it better, let’s assume that highest court in New York State decides that environmental nuisances are grounds to grant an injunction to stop the nuisance. Then, according to the principle of stare decisis, when a plaintiff brings a complaint against a cement factory’s owner because the cement pollution causes plaintiff to suffer partial eviction from its property adjacent to the cement factory, that plaintiff has a high expectation that under New York law defendant’s factory will be closed, unless the pollution can be averted. But law is not science and law depends on various factors, among them a judge’s understanding of each factor involved in the case.

In other words, this principle is not set in stone. In fact there are quite a few problems with making it work, because (a) it is as hard to identifying the binding rule, as (b) it is to identify factually similar cases. Furthermore, even identified, rules are a matter of interpretation. So, in fact the principle of stare decisis becomes a principle of preserving a legal system more than perpetuating a specific rule for a specific set of facts.

The next sections will briefly discuss some aspects related to the application of the principle of stare decisis under the headings of:

  1. The Structure of an Opinion Is a Gray Zone
  2. Identifying the Factually Similar Cases