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Stare Decisis and its Significance

Latin for “to stand by that which is decided,” Stare Decisis is a legal doctrine whose guiding dogma has created the backbone for judicial reasoning, effectively, based on the notion of precedent. Courts cite Stare Decisis when a similar case has a paralleling scenario and set of facts to a case that has occurred in the past. These past cases serve as a pattern and add to the legal framework when a similar situation crops up. A court will often apply the same legal reasoning, and rule in the same way when facts are congruous, but will not always adhere to previous rulings. The decisions of any court will reflect the peculiarities of the particular case.

In the 1928 case, Olmstead v. United States, the court delved into the questionable use of wiretapped private telephone conversations and its admissibility as evidence in a courtroom, setting a precedent that would last for forty years. Federal agents had mounted wiretaps in the basement and in the streets near a suspected bootlegger’s home. The defense had contended the wiretapping was a blatant infringement of the fourth amendment, and an unreasonable search and seizure, but the court, at odds with itself, decided otherwise. The majority of the justices posited that no tangible seizure or personal invasion had occurred, ultimately leading to their ruling that set a precedent which permitted unrestrained electronic surveillance by law enforcement, outside the parameters of any judicial ambit. Following Olmstead v. U.S., courts delivered consistent decisions referencing Stare Decisis, whenever the ruling was applicable to substantially similar factors. In uncommon incidents, such as Silverman v. United States (1961), the court pronounced definitive Fourth Amendment violations on every occasion that a physical intrusion onto the property had occurred by officers to install the eavesdropping devices.

A ruling reversing the decision was finally made in Katz v. United States. This marked a break from tradition, by neglecting to use Stare Decisis as the prevailing logic that had guided the court’s cases regarding fourth amendment cases and searches and seizures subsequently after Olmstead v. United States. The court reneged on its previous logic in questioning whether or not the physical trespass had taken place and instead underscored the “expectation to privacy” and whether people were protected under the fourth amendment rather than places. Precedent had been broken in this case and thus gave way to new standards for surveillance. The court realized the shortcomings of the previous doctrine, guided by Stare Decisis, and determined Congress should establish standards in-line with the constitution to outline electronic surveillance.

Essentially, Stare Decisis imports a rule of thumb thereby sheparding cases through the courts. By basing decisions on the holding of previous cases- on the matter of law- with certain circumstances and certain facts, it allows the case to lead to the same certain results. Consequently, the decisions become less arbitrary, less erratic and impulsive, as a result of turning the focus away from Obiter Dictum, or what is said, by boldly venturing to “disturb settled matters.” That precedent is a stabilizing mechanism in the courts and is indispensable from jurisprudence is an understatement, for it expedites the process of judicial review by providing the stability and constancy needed in the judicial system with authoritative guidelines. In addition to these imperatives, Stare Decisis is a vehicle which eliminates the risk of “flooding” of the courts and is enhances the efficacy of the courts. It would be futile and inefficient of a court to develop a new rationale and a new way of thinking specific to each case that appeared but had the same set of underlying facts. Still although it is not malleable, Stare Decisis can be employed and put into practice as the guiding authority until a situation in a case arises that does not follow the previous patterns and facts, in which it can then be overturned. The 1928 case Olmstead v. United States provided a concrete foundation in resolving similar cases for decades until Stare Decisis was no longer suitable for the justices in Katz v. United States.


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