Judicial Precedent
WIKIPEDIA | 2014-05-23 16:51
Courts adjudicate alleged violations of and disputes arising under the law. This often requires that they interpret the law. In doing so, courts consider themselves bound by how other courts of equal or superior rank have previously interpreted a law. This is known as the principle of stare decisis, or simply precedent. It helps to ensure consistency and predictability. Litigants facing unfavorable precedent, or case law, try to distinguish the facts of their particular case from those that produced the earlier decisions.

Sometimes courts interpret the law differently. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, for instance, contains a clause that "[n]o person? shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." From time to time, cases arose where an individual would decline to answer a subpoena or otherwise testify on the grounds that his testimony might subject him to criminal prosecution – not in the United States but in another country. Would the self-incrimination clause apply here? The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled it did, but the Fourth and Eleventh Circuits held that it did not. (Note: The U.S. Circuit Court for the Second Circuit is an appellate court that hears appeals from the federal district courts in the states of New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. The Fourth Circuit encompasses Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, and the Eleventh Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.) This effectively meant that the law differed depending where in the country a case arose!

Higher-level courts try to resolve these inconsistencies. The Supreme Court of the United States, for instance, often chooses to hear a case when its decision can resolve a division among the Circuit courts. The Supreme Court precedent will control, or apply to all the lower federal courts. In United States v. Balsys, 524 U.S. 666 (1998), the Supreme Court ruled that fear of foreign prosecution is beyond the scope of the Self-Incrimination Clause. (Note: The numbers in this sentence comprise the citation to the Balsys decision. They indicate that the Court issued its ruling in the year 1998 and that the decision appears in volume 524 of a series called United States Reports, beginning on page 666.) This ruling became the law of the entire nation, including the Second Circuit. Any federal court subsequently facing the issue was bound by the high court ruling in Balsys. Circuit court decisions similarly bind all the District Courts within that circuit. Stare decisis also applies in the various state court systems. In this way, precedent grows both in volume and explanatory reach.
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