The Problem of ‘Personal Precedents’ of Supreme Court Justices

from NYTs

Supreme Court justices, like most people, like to appear to be consistent. No one wants to be thought to be a flip-flopper, an opportunist or a hypocrite.

That means justices try not to disavow earlier legal views, even ones that appeared in dissents, in opinions they wrote as appeals court judges, in academic work, at their confirmation hearings and elsewhere.

This impulse, which a provocative new article calls “personal precedent,” can be at odds with respect for precedent in the conventional sense.

The force and legitimacy of such personal precedents has seldom been explored, and the rare scholars who have considered it have mostly been critical. “To factor in one’s individual track record on an issue” in decisions on whether to overrule actual precedents “presents an example of political behavior,” Allison Orr Larsen, a law professor at William & Mary, wrote in a 2008 article.

More here.

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One Comment

  1. I believe this article clearly addresses the phenomenon of Supreme Court justices not changing their earlier opinion on specific issues, which makes it impossible to overturn an earlier precedent in the presence of the same justices. It is very paradoxical how judges tend to stay “loyal” to their earlier opinions on issues, regardless of whether such an opinion was written 30 years ago or 2 years ago. In my opinion, justices tend to not change their opinions due to fact that they wish to appear credible and firm in their beliefs. They may think they might appear weak or indecisive in front of the American population if they choose to change their opinion on an issue.
    On the contrary, though, the past decade has proven that such a philosophy is very flawed and doesn’t reflect the wishes and new values of Americans. Some judges who have served for more than twenty years and have voted pro or against a certain issue in the past, tend to have the same opinion in ruling current cases when it comes to a similar or the same issue. Justice Clarence Thomas, for example, who is the longest-standing judge of the Supreme Court ( 32 years ), has voted against abortion since his first abortion case in 1992. Since the justice’s first dissenting opinion in Planned Parenthood v Casey, Thomas has been against abortion including the recent Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization case that has overturned the long-standing precedent of the Roe v Wade case. It is important to acknowledge that, in the past 30 years, the American public has changed a lot. While Americans tended to be more conservative throughout the 20th century, the late 80s have signified the rise of new notions and opinions on major issues. People demanded for more privacy and less control by the government over their choices and actions. People have also become less religious which has contributed to the decay of many beliefs and values that were enforced by religion. At the same time, while the American population has gradually become more liberal, some of the justices have remained loyal to the beliefs they had more than 30 years ago. Such issue reflects on the past controversial Supreme Court rulings including the ban on abortion, expenditure of aid to religious organizations, and acceptance of policies that prevent some minorities to exercise their voting right. Many conservative judges fail to acknowledge the fast-changing views of the majority of Americans. While using the Consitution as the primary source of law, judges need to take into account the views of Americans, as it is important to keep a healthy balance between the laws and the views and wishes of the population.

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