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What is a Legal Precedent?

By Christy Bieber
Updated May 16, 2024
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Legal precedent is an existing legal ruling. Legal precedent comes from case law, or past judicial decisions and cases. Precedent is binding, unless overturned by a higher court.

In the United States, much of the law is made and interpreted by judges. This judicially made law, or common law, is valid unless the legislature overrules it. Case law can involve interpretations of statutes or other legislation, interpretation of the constitution, or decisions on a case in which no statutory law directly implies.

When a judge issues a decision on a case, that case becomes legal precedent. This means that any following cases will follow the precedent set forth in that case. People can look to precedent to guide their behavior, and lawyers can look to precedent to estimate how a case will turn out, and to make arguments for or against a particular legal interpretation.

The United State's Court system has a strong respect for precedent. The legal doctrine of stare decisis dictates that precedent will be followed in future court cases. Stare decisis, a Latin phrase, means "to stand by and adhere to decisions and not disturb what is settled."

There are two types of precedent in the United States: binding and persuasive precedent. Binding precedent is precedent that must be followed. Persuasive precedent refers to interpretations of the law that can suggest a course of action, but that legally do not have to be followed.

When a court within a jurisdiction issues a ruling, it is binding precedent on all other courts within that jurisdiction that are at the same level or lower. For example, if a district court in California issues a ruling on an issue or interprets a law, all California District Courts, and all lower California courts must follow that precedent.

Persuasive authority, on the other hand, refers to an interpretation from a court that is not obligatory. Persuasive authority can come from decisions in another jurisdiction. For example, a Washington court's interpretation of a law is not binding on a California court, but it can be persuasive.

At times, legal precedent can be changed. It can only be changed, however, by a court at the same level that created it, or at a higher level. The Supreme Court, for example, can overrule a district court case, at which point the legal precedent set forth in the district court case is no longer binding.

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Discussion Comments

By Izzy78 — On May 12, 2012

@kentuckycat - I really find the aspect of legal precedents interesting and have to wonder if society can affect and even change some of the precedents that are made in the courtrooms?

I really have to wonder that if the case of Roe versus Wade had been brought to the Supreme Court ten years earlier, during a conservative era, if abortion would have been outlawed?

If this were the case that means that the law would completely change around this ruling and the ever changing society would have to adapt to the law.

I really have to also wonder if the change in society can also affect legal precedents and even get them reversed to reflect the changing times in society?

By cardsfan27 — On May 12, 2012

@kentuckycat - That is very interesting and what is also very interesting is the fact that local courts can set precedent for future cases.

I remember watching Good Will Hunting the other day and I saw where the main character tried to argue to be let go on an assault charge due to a precedent that was set in a local courthouse in Boston in the 1700's, which was based on something that actually was argued in a modern day courtroom.

These types of things can happen and legal precedents can be set anywhere at anytime and in any case. It is really something that is a very interesting aspect of the law as no matter how small the court is it can still set a precedent that can affect the law for decades and sometimes even centuries to come.

Even today there are still statutes on record in Great Britain that were established in the 1600's in local court houses and in some cases even earlier.

By kentuckycat — On May 11, 2012

@TreeMan - To be totally honest it still happens as often today as it did back then simply due to the fact that society is always changing.

There are issues that occur today that did not happen in the past due to aspects such as societal constraints as well as simply facts like society or technology had not advanced enough to cover an issue that is at hand today.

It still happens quite often today with a much more narrow focus on the issues that it happens for. If one were to look at the Supreme Courts website it explains whenever a legal precedent is set by the court, which is nearly every case, and explains to how this will effect future cases.

By TreeMan — On May 11, 2012

I know that the term of legal precedent is used in a lot of cases, but how often is it really referred to as binding and allowing future rulings to be based on it?

I know that it happens, but I really do not feel like it happens too much anymore simply because there has been over two hundred years of court rulings in order to make binding precedents of the law and there is little left that has not already been covered.

Simply because of this fact, I really have to wonder how often binding precedent still occurs and how often the precedent occurs that simply leads to an interpretation on the rulings on which to judge the case on.

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