The Supreme Court has been given the highest appellate power of any court of law in the United States, but beyond that function it has emerged it has an effective source of new reform, based largely on the status accorded to judicial precedence. In recent American history, specific suits such as that of Roe v. Wade can become bywords for legal changes that affect the broad swath of American society. Though its significance to American history cannot be discounted, the principle of judicial precedence is not unique to the United States legal system.
The ability for Supreme Court precedence to function as a force in the lives of Americans originates from the nation’s colonial roots in the governmental and legal system of England, which operates by the principle of common law, in which laws are developed through the decisions of judges and other authorities rather than placed in decisively fixed form. Judicial precedence is thus the essential cornerstone of this system, as is embodied in the Latin phrase stare decisis. Meaning “maintain what has been decided,” this principle holds that judicial decisions should be consistent with each other.
Part of the general principle of judicial precedence, and the most relevant section for the purposes of Supreme Court precedence, is the hierarchy which it allows to exist in the legal system. In this way, the binding nature of judicial precedence established through a decision made by a higher court must be followed by the lower regional and appellate courts. According to this system, judicial precedence can also be limited by region, so that a decision made upon appeal for a particular region will not be assured of creating judicial precedence for the purpose of a court in another region. Due to such geographical limitations in the practice of a common law system, as is the case in the United States, Supreme Court precedence can be understood as a necessarily binding ingredient for the legal system as a whole.
The form of judicial precedence explored above is referred to as mandatory. It may also come in persuasive form, though that is not binding for court decisions, but rather an applicable factor which may be taken in account. Though lower courts by definition are placed under Supreme Court precedence and other higher court powers, through this kind of judicial precedence they may exercise influence, if not power, over the legal system as a whole.
The scope of Supreme Court precedence also exists within certain limits, such as are practiced by the Court itself, in order to provide for the flexibility of its decision-making process. It might be said that while the Supreme Court precedence governs the remainder of the American legal system, this form of judicial precedence is not observed by the Court itself. Legal scholars have noted the frequency with which the Supreme Court reverses its previous decisions. The Court considers the application of the stare decisis principle to questions of Constitutional intent to be more limited than it is to other areas of law.