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Stare decisis and precedent in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court uses past decisions, or precedents, to guide rulings. Its role differs from the executive and legislative branches. Justices, appointed by the president, can influence long-term politics. Notably, the court overturned segregation laws from Plessy v. Ferguson with Brown v. Board of Education, showing the power of changing politics and court appointments.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] As we have talked about in many videos, the United States Supreme Court has a very different role than the executive or the legislative branches. The executive branch of course runs the government. The legislative branch, they make the laws and set the budgets. And then the Supreme Court can rule that a law is unconstitutional, or it can interpret laws in a specific case. And when the Supreme Court justices make these decisions, they try to follow the principle of stare decisis, which is Latin for "let the decision stand." It's this idea of taking previous decisions as an example. And if we're in a similar case now, then they just use that decision as an example for this one. This is closely associated with the idea of precedent. Precedent in everyday language means something that has happened before, an action or a decision that we can use a guide or as an example. And that's exactly what the Supreme Court tries to do. If the Supreme Court has made a previous ruling on a similar case, that would be considered a precedent for this case. The Supreme Court has been often described as umpires, like umpires in a baseball game. Even Chief Justice John Roberts described it as such during his confirmation hearings. And it's this idea that they should be these objective arbiters of what the truth is, of what is constitutional and what is not. What does a law actually mean? But we know in reality, these are human beings. And no matter how unbiased and no matter how objective they try to be, they still bring to the table their views and their experiences. And so even though this seems like a very clean process, there's definitely a large degree of subjectivity here. And because the executive branch, in particular the president, can appoint Supreme Court justices, there's definitely examples in history of changes in politics having long-term effects on changes in the Supreme Court. For example, a significant case of overturning precedent happens from 1896 to 1954. In 1896, you have the Plessy v. Ferguson case that we covered in several other videos, where the then Supreme Court rules its laws that involve segregation are okay. But then you fast-forward almost 60 years, and then the Supreme Court then, in Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, ruled that no, separate but equal is not constitutional, that segregation is not okay. And this was influenced by this idea of, over time, you had presidents who were able to make judicial appointments to the Supreme Court as members of the Supreme Court died or retired, and went through a Senate confirmation process, and then these justices have life tenure. They can stay on the Supreme Court until they pass away or until they decide to retire. And so many historians would say that this overturning of precedent was due to a change in politics from the 1930s through the early 1950s. When you have several terms of FDR and then you have President Truman, who appointed justices to the Supreme Court that would eventually rule on Brown v. Board of Education, and they would be more pro-civil rights. And what's interesting about this is even though presidents try to appoints folks who they believe would maybe vote the way they would or have similar views, many times, it doesn't always work that way. For example, President Eisenhower, who was a Republican, appointed Justice Earl Warren, who was a Republican governor of California, but Warren ended up being famous for taking more liberal stances than not, including on Brown v. Board of Education.