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Vertical stare decisis in California and Federal Courts

Vertical stare decisis in California and Federal Courts is the topic of this blog post. The legal doctrine of stare decisis is derived from the Latin phrase stare decisis et non quieta movere which means to adhere to precedent and not unsettle what is established. This blog post will discuss vertical stare decisis which deals with the precedential effect of decisions on higher or lower courts. Horizontal stare decisis meaning the effect of decisions by courts at the same level will be discussed in a later blog post.

The doctrine of stare decisis is generally one of the first concepts taught in law schools and some paralegal schools as well as at least a basic understanding of the doctrine is essential for anyone conducting legal research.

Simply stated the doctrine of vertical stare decisis means that the decisions of higher courts are binding precedent on lower courts. This doctrine applies in both California and federal courts. However there are differences in how the doctrine of vertical stare decisis is applied under California and federal law. There are also differences between what is known as vertical stare decisis and what is known as horizontal stare decisis.

Vertical stare decisis under federal law is fairly easy to understand. Essentially the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court are binding on all other federal courts, decisions of the various circuit courts of appeals are binding on the federal district courts located within each circuit, and the decisions of district courts are not binding authority as they generally have no binding precedential effect although they may still have what is known as persuasive authority.

For example, a district court judge in California is not bound to follow precedent from any circuit court except published decisions from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has appellate jurisdiction over the federal courts located in California. Thus geography, particularly where any given district court sits within a given circuit is very important in federal practice.

As for the federal and state supreme courts, each is free to overrule its own precedents. See State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3, 20 (1997); see also Freeman & Mills, Inc. v. Belcher Oil Co., (1995) 11 Cal. 4th 85, 93.

California Supreme Court decisions bind all lower courts no matter how old the Supreme Court opinion might be. See Lawrence Tractor Co. v. Carlisle Ins. Co., (1988) 202 Cal. App. 3d 949, 954 (1988); see also Mehr v. Superior Court, (1983) 139 Cal. App. 3d 1044, 1049 n.3.

Any Federal court that is applying state law is bound by the highest state authority to have ruled. For example, the Ninth Circuit may be bound by a decision of the California Supreme Court or the California Court of Appeal if that is the highest court to have addressed the issue of state law. See Johnson v. Frankell, 520 U.S. 911, 916 (1997) (federal courts must follow state’s highest court on question of state law); see also Cal. Pro-Life Council, Inc. v. Getman, 328 F. 3d 1088, 1099 (9th Cir. 2003) (federal courts must follow state’s intermediate appellate courts absent convincing evidence that the state’s highest court would rule differently).

Note that in California any state courts applying federal law are bound by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. See Elliott v. Albright, (1989) 209 Cal. App. 3d 1028, 1034. However they are not bound by any district or circuit court decisions although such rulings are entitled to “substantial deference.” See Yee v. City of Escondido, (1990) 224 Cal. App. 3d 1349, 1351.

It should also be noted that any federal court decisions on state law are not binding on state courts. See Qualified Patients Ass’n v. City of Anaheim, (2010) 187 Cal. App. 4th 734, 764; see also Bodell v. Walbrook (9th Cir. 1997) 119 F. 3d 1411, 1422 (Kozinski, J., dissenting) (“The good thing when a federal court misapplies state law is that its opinion can be ignored by the state courts.”)

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The author of this blog post, Stan Burman, is an entrepreneur and freelance paralegal who has worked in California and Federal litigation since 1995 and has created over 300 sample legal documents for California and Federal litigation.

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Please note that the author of this blog post, Stan Burman is NOT an attorney and as such is unable to provide any specific legal advice. The author is NOT engaged in providing any legal, financial, or other professional services, and any information contained in this blog post is NOT intended to constitute legal advice.

The materials and information contained in this blog post have been prepared by Stan Burman for informational purposes only and are not legal advice. Transmission of the information contained in this blog post is not intended to create, and receipt does not constitute, any business relationship between the author and any readers. Readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.


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