Drawing Goal Lines: Stare Decisis and the U.S. Supreme Court

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Drawing Goal Lines: Stare Decisis and the U.S. Supreme Court

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Stare decisis, Latin for “to stand by,” is the central principle of common law. Essentially, stare decisis conveys the idea that once the judicial system has decided a point of law, it should adhere to that decision when the facts in subsequent cases are similar. This is why cases set “precedents,” or in other words, why law developed in past decisions is used to decide new ones. Many of the American judicial system’s most famous cases – for example, Brown v. Board of Education – see the Supreme Court reject precedent explicitly and dramatically to overrule past case law. This leads to the common perception that precedent is simply “applied” or “overturned.” My research takes a different view. I examined cases stemming from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits certain kinds of discrimination in employer hiring practices. Since the case law interpreting the new statue was created from a clean slate, I was able to trace the entire development of precedent-setting cases stemming from this law. My research confirms that stare decisis is not a rigid mandate to apply or overturn precedent, but a flexible tool that justices on the Supreme Court use to effect outcomes. Justices have personal ideologies and political goals and must act strategically to further those goals. I examine the development of law arising from Title VII to model this strategic action as a process of laying down a “playing field” of basic concepts and directions in the law in the earliest cases arising from new legislation. Subsequent decisions strategically set and reset the “goal lines” on the “playing field,” a process in which the law often shifts dramatically despite the fact that the principle of stare decisis is not violated.


Additional contributor: Timothy Johnson (faculty mentor).

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Hart, Andrew M.. (2010). Drawing Goal Lines: Stare Decisis and the U.S. Supreme Court. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy, https://hdl.handle.net/11299/61950.

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