The Cost of Judicial Error: Stare Decisis and the Role of Normative Theory

By Lash, Kurt T. | Notre Dame Law Review, May 2014 | Go to article overview

The Cost of Judicial Error: Stare Decisis and the Role of Normative Theory


Lash, Kurt T., Notre Dame Law Review


Changes in constitutional doctrine impose costs in terms of the values traditionally associated with the rule of law. Stability, predictability, and public confidence in the presumptive legitimacy of current law all can be undermined by departures from, or formal overruling of, prior precedent. The prudential doctrine of stare decisis is meant to ameliorate these costs by counseling judicial adherence to precedent even in those cases where a judge believes the prior decision was wrong. (1) Although consistently described as a discretionary policy, as opposed to an "inexorable command," the Supreme Court of the United States has long embraced the doctrine of stare decisis as an appropriate consideration any time the Court considers overruling past precedent. However, because the Court's actual application of the doctrine has been both sporadic and seemingly inconsistent, some scholars (and Justices) have accused the Court of methodological hypocrisy and bad faith. (2)

Much of this criticism assumes that, if members of the Supreme Court find certain rule of law values dispositive in one case, they should find those same considerations dispositive in all cases. Failure to do so suggests either incompetence or insincerity. This Article argues that, on the contrary, stare decisis ought not be applied in the same manner in all cases. In fact, occasionally stare decisis should not apply at all.

Before the Court considers whether and how to apply stare decisis in a constitutional case, it must first determine whether the application of the doctrine is appropriate. This initial determination requires an application of normative interpretive theory. When viewed through the lens of theory, some judicial errors impose such high costs that application of the doctrine of stare decisis is inappropriate, and those errors should simply be rectified. Even in those constitutional cases where theory allows the maintenance of judicial error to be a legitimate option, considerations of normative theory affect how the Court ought to balance the costs of upholding against the costs of overruling erroneous precedent. In cases where theory suggests the costs of judicial error are relatively low, avoiding substantial harm to the rule of law might reasonably suggest that the Court should "stand by" the flawed decision. Where theory suggests the costs of error are high, however, only the most severe disruption to the rule of law can justify maintaining a flawed precedent.

This balancing of normative theory and stare decisis occurs in all judicial applications of stare decisis, though not always in a transparent manner. This Article suggests that such balancing is perfectly appropriate but that it needs to be more deeply theorized and more transparently applied.

I begin by considering some of the high-profile cases of the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts that dealt with the issue of maintaining a flawed precedent. This is not meant to be an exhaustive account, but merely a review of those cases that highlight the Court's different approaches to stare decisis in different cases. On their faces, these decisions seem to apply different and almost contradictory theories of stare decisis. When viewed through the lens of normative theory, however, the decisions reflect not so much contradictory applications of stare decisis as varying assessments of the cost of maintaining judicial error. The impact of this counter-balancing consideration of normative theory is especially evident in the Roberts Court's decision to overrule Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce (3) in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. (4)

Building upon the implicit theory of Citizens United, the final Part sketches a more complete theory of stare decisis that takes into consideration both the rule of law considerations of stare decisis and the normative considerations that flow from the traditional theory of popular sovereignty. …

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