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Precedent and the Doctrine of Stare Decisis ("Let the decision stand")

Though the trial courts and the appellate courts have different jobs, they work together to form one system of justice. When a decision is made by a higher court, the lower courts must follow it. Once a case is decided, it establishes a precedent, or a judicial decision that should be followed when a similar case comes to court. To serve as precedent for a pending case, a prior decision must have almost the same question of law and almost the same facts. If the precedent is from the same court or a higher court, such as the state's Supreme Court, the lower court must follow it. For example, the Indiana Supreme Court made a rule against slavery in 18201. In all slavery cases that came after the 1820 decision, any decisions made by an Indiana trial court had to follow the Supreme Court's ruling that slavery was illegal. If the precedent is from another area, such as another state's Supreme Court, it can be considered, but it does not have to be followed.

Although the doctrine of stare decisis helps to promote predictability and order in our legal system, our system still must remain flexible, and the law must be capable of change. To do this, the same court that originally made a decision can also overrule itself and set a new precedent. For example, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court overturned its earlier decision that allowed separate schools for children of different races. In Brown, the court set a new precedent by ordering that children of different races should go to school together. Roscoe Pound, a famous jurist and dean of Harvard Law School from 1916 to 1936, once said, "The law must be stable, and yet it cannot stand still." This quote sums up the ability of our legal system to remain predictable, yet be flexible enough to change and grow.

The Indiana Supreme Court is the highest court in the state of Indiana; therefore, the decisions of the Supreme Court have to be followed by all courts below it: the Indiana Court of Appeals, the Indiana Tax Court, and the Indiana trial courts. Indiana trial courts also have to follow the decisions of the Indiana Court of Appeals and the Indiana Tax Court, because they are higher courts.

Although the Indiana Supreme Court is the highest court in Indiana, the United States Supreme Court is the highest court in all of the United States. Therefore, the Indiana Supreme Court, like all other state supreme courts, must follow the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.


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1 In State v. LaSalle, 1 Blackf. 60 (Ind. 1820), Polly, an African-American woman, went to court claiming her slave master's ownership of her as a slave violated the Indiana Constitution's prohibition against slavery. The Indiana Supreme Court agreed, and Polly was released from her slave master.