It’s the Law – Until it Isn’t

The U. S. Supreme Court has just overturned its own precedent in the case of Tax Board of California v Hyatt. The question presented in that case had to do with governmental immunity. The legal issue will not affect your life, but the way the Supreme Court arrived at its result could make an enormous difference in future cases that are of great importance to society.

The narrow legal issue before the Court had previously been decided 40 years ago by the Supreme Court. In other words, it was settled law.

Our legal system depends upon the principle of stare decisis (“to stand by things decided”). This means that once an issue is decided by the highest court with competent jurisdiction, the decision has the full force and effect of law and all subsequent courts faced with the same issue are obligated to rule in accordance with the decision. Stare decisis is the bedrock of our legal system.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the decision in the new case. He was joined by the other four conservative justices. Thomas spent all of 3 paragraphs in explaining why the principle of stare decisis should not stand in the way of overturning the 

Court’s own precedent even though litigants were justifiably relying upon it.  In a nutshell, Thomas’ explanation was to the effect of “we don’t like the prior decision” and “because we can”.

The U. S. Supreme Court has just overturned its own precedent in the case of Tax Board of California v Hyatt. The question presented in that case had to do with governmental immunity. The legal issue will not affect your life, but the way the Supreme Court arrived at its result could make an enormous difference in future cases that are of great importance to society.

The narrow legal issue before the Court had previously been decided 40 years ago by the Supreme Court. In other words, it was settled law.

Our legal system depends upon the principle of stare decisis (“to stand by things decided”). This means that once an issue is decided by the highest court with competent jurisdiction, the decision has the full force and effect of law and all subsequent courts faced with the same issue are obligated to rule in accordance with the decision. Stare decisis is the bedrock of our legal system.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the decision in the new case. He was joined by the other four conservative justices. Thomas spent all of 3 paragraphs in explaining why the principle of stare decisis should not stand in the way of overturning the Court’s own precedent even though litigants were justifiably relying upon it.  In a nutshell, Thomas’ explanation was to the effect of “we don’t like the prior decision” and “because we can”.

Justice Breyer, in dissent, said it was “dangerous to overrule a decision only because five members of a later court come to agree with earlier dissenters on a difficult legal question”.

According to Breyer, “The people of this nation rely upon stability in the law. Legal stability allows lawyers to give clients sound advice and allows ordinary citizens to plan their lives. To overrule a sound decision like Hall is to encourage litigants to seek to overrule other cases; it is to make it more difficult for lawyers to refrain from challenging settled law; and it is to cause the public to become increasingly uncertain about which cases the court will overrule and which cases are here to stay.”

At this point you should be asking about how long Roe v Wade and other cases will be the law of the land and how honest Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were during their confirmation hearings when they testified that they believed in stare decisis.