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Horizontal stare decisis

The legal doctrine of horizontal stare decisis is the topic of this blog post. The legal doctrine known as stare decisis derives from the Latin phrase stare decisis et non quieta movere, meaning to adhere to precedent and not unsettle what is established. Horizontal stare decisis essentially means the effect of decisions by courts at the same level. This blog post will focus on the differences between horizontal stare decisis between the California and federal court systems.

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

Horizontal stare decisis is somewhat different from vertical stare decisis. For instance, in the federal system, an opinion from one circuit court of appeals may be persuasive precedent but is not binding on other courts of appeals. See Hart v. Massanari, 266 F. 3d 1155, 1172-73 (9th Cir. 2001). This allows the circuits to reach contrary decisions suitable for decision by the Supreme Court.

However within the Ninth Circuit for example, horizontal stare decisis operates to bind subsequent panels. This means that the first panel of Ninth Circuit judges to publish an opinion on an issue binds not only district courts within the circuit but also subsequent Ninth Circuit panels. For the Ninth Circuit to overrule its own precedent, it must issue an en banc decision. See Miranda B. v. Kitzhaber, 328 F. 3d 1181, 1185 (9th Cir. 2003) that case stated that a panel must follow prior panel decisions unless a Supreme Court decision, an en banc decision, or subsequent legislation undermines its precedential value.

However in California the situation is radically different in that there is no horizontal stare decisis between appellate panels of the California Court of Appeal. See Marriage of Shaban (2001) 88 Cal. App. 4th 398, 409. So one appellate panel is not bound by the decision of another.

And when there are two published decisions that are in conflict, the superior court “can and must make a choice between the conflicting decisions.” See Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court (1962) 57 Cal. 2d 450, 456.

The California Supreme Court has stated that, there is only one California Court of Appeal, albeit administratively divided into districts and sometimes subdivided into divisions. See Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court, (1962) 57 Cal. 2d 450, 455.

Every superior court must follow any published decision from any district and any division of any court of appeal. See Cuccia v. Superior Court, (2007) 153 Cal. App. 4th 347, 353-54 that case stated that stare decisis requires a superior court to follow a published court of appeal decision even if the trial judge believes the appellate decision was wrongly decided.

Because there is no horizontal stare decisis in California panels of the California Court of Appeal are not bound by any decisions of prior panels, even within the same district. Thus, any particular district or division of the court of appeal may disagree with a decision by any other district or division. This means that while the U.S. Supreme Court regulates circuit-splits from the 13 federal circuits, the California Supreme Court oversees potential splits from what are essentially 19 separate courts of appeal considering each of the six districts plus the divisions within those districts as independent courts.

In this situation, the trial court is free to pick which of the decisions to follow. See Auto Equity Sales, Inc., supra, 57 Cal. 2d at 456 (“where there is more than one appellate court decision, and such appellate decisions are in conflict,” the superior court “can and must make a choice between the conflicting decisions”).

However in actual practice some superior court judges tend to view this freedom as more theoretical than real. A California Court of Appeal has even stated in a published decision that “a superior court ordinarily will follow an appellate opinion emanating from its own district even though it is not bound to do so.” See McCallum v. McCallum, (1987) 190 Cal. App. 3d 308, 315.

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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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