A prior post discussed stare decisis in the context of recent suggestions that the U.S. Supreme Court should establish a new and different interpretation of the constitutional limits on federal and state regulation of economic activities. Another post summarized arguments why there should be no such changes and why the Affordable Care Act was constitutional.
Here we examine in greater detail the U.S. doctrine of stare decisisas it relates to the forthcoming Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act.
The Doctrine of Stare Decisis
As stated by Geoffrey Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago (my alma mater), “Stare decisis is . . . the bedrock principle of the rule of law, to decide cases based on principle rather than on a preference for one or another of the parties before them, but it also serves importantly to reduce the politicization of the Court. It moderates ideological swings and preserves both the appearance and the reality that the Supreme Court is truly a legal rather than a political institution.”
I would add that the doctrine also assists in providing equal treatment for those similarly situated. If, for example, John Doe is held liable to Susan Smith for doing something to her, then Richard Roe should be held liable for doing the same thing to Janet Jones. This is a very important part of the rule of law.
Indeed, Chief Justice Roberts in a concurring opinion in the infamous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case from 2010, said, “Fidelity to precedent—the policy of stare decisis—is vital to the proper exercise of the judicial function. Stare decisis is the preferred course because it promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.”
Part of what law students learn in law school and what practicing lawyers do in their lawyerly work is how to identify and articulate the holdings of cases and how to make legitimate distinctions between cases. That is all part of the doctrine of stare decisis.
Exceptions to the Doctrine of Stare Decisis
As Chief Justice John Roberts, however, said in his concurring opinion in Citizens United, stare decisis is not an “inexorable command” or a “mechanical formula of adherence to the latest decision.” Yet the Supreme Court has “long recognized that departures from precedent are inappropriate in the absence of a ‘special justification.'”
The Court in considering a potential departure from stare decisis must first conclude that a prior decision or decisions were erroneous. Roberts added, “When considering whether to reexamine a prior erroneous holding, we must balance the importance of having constitutional questions decided against the importance of having them decided right.”
Quoting former Supreme court Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson (1941-1954), Roberts said that such a balancing requires a “sober appraisal of the disadvantages of the innovation as well as those of the questioned case, a weighing of practical effects of one against the other.” Roberts went on, “in the unusual circumstance when fidelity to any particular precedent does more to damage this constitutional ideal [of the rule of law] than to advance it, we must be more willing to depart from that precedent.”
One example of a justified overruling of a prior decision is when “the precedent under consideration itself departed from the Court’s [prior] jurisprudence.” Another example, said Roberts, is when ” adherence to a precedent actually impedes the stable and orderly adjudication of future cases. . . such as when the precedent’s validity is so hotly contested that it cannot reliably function as a basis for decision in future cases, when its rationale threatens to upend our settled jurisprudence in related areas of law, and when the precedent’s underlying reasoning has become so discredited that the Court cannot keep the precedent alive without jury-rigging new and different justifications to shore up the original mistake.”
In the Citizens United concurring opinion, Roberts specifically cited three instances of the Supreme Court’s properly departing from stare decisis and overruling prior cases: (1) Brown v. Board of Education‘s overruling of Plessy v. Ferguson and holding school racial segregation unconstitutional; (2) Katz v. United States’ overruling of Olmstead v. United States and holding wiretapping of criminal suspects without a search warrant unconstitutional; and (3) the previously mentioned West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish‘s overruling of Adkins v. Children’s Hospital of D.C. and holding minimum wage laws to be constitutional.
Given the valid and important reasons behind the doctrine of stare decisis and the weighty burden that should be met by any court’s overruling prior precedents, even as expressed by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court, in my opinion, should adhere to the 75-year deep body of law interpreting the Constitutional limits on economic regulation and uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.
This apparently was the view of the Obama Administration at the time of the adoption of the Act and at the start of the various lawsuits challenging that statute. As a New York Times article today states, “Democrats said they had had every reason for confidence, given decades of Supreme Court precedents affirming Congress’s authority to regulate interstate commerce, and lawyers who defended the law said they had always taken the challenge seriously even if politicians had not. But they underestimated the chances that conservative judges might, in this view, radically reinterpret or discard those precedents.”
If a divided Supreme Court this week does change the interpretation of the constitutional limits on congressional power to regulate interstate commerce, it will indeed be radical.
In reaction to such a possibility, Jonathan Turley, Professor at George Washington University Law School, has suggested that the number of Supreme Court justices be increased from its current nine to 19. In his opinion, “Our highest court is so small that the views of individual justices have a distorting and idiosyncratic effect on our laws.”
Turley points out that the number of justices is not set in our Constitution and that nine was happenstance. He also says many developed countries have larger top courts: Germany (16), Japan (15), United Kingdom (12) and Israel (15). France (124) and Spain (74) have significantly more judges on their top courts, but those courts have structural differences from ours. All of these courts, however, “eliminate the [U.S.] concentration-of-power problem.” Turley suggests 19 for the U.S. as the average size of our federal appellate courts.