Vertical Stare Decisis and Three-Judge District Courts
68 Pages Posted: 8 May 2019 Last revised: 23 Mar 2020
Date Written: April 17, 2019
Three-judge federal district courts are responsible for adjudicating many cases involving congressional and state legislative gerrymandering, the constitutionality of federal campaign finance restrictions, the Voting Rights Act, and other issues central to our democratic system. Litigants often have the right to appeal district court rulings in such cases directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because of this unusual appellate process, courts and commentators disagree on whether such three-judge panels are bound by circuit precedent, or instead are free to adjudicate these critical constitutional issues subject only to U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
The applicability of Court of Appeals precedent in three-judge district court implicates larger questions about the justifications for, and scope of, vertical stare decisis within the federal judiciary. The Appellate Jurisdiction Theory of vertical stare decisis posits that, when adjudicating a case, a court must only apply precedents from tribunals with appellate jurisdiction over that particular matter. The Structural Theory, in contrast, contends that lower courts must presumptively follow the precedents of courts that are superior to them within the judicial hierarchy.
A careful analysis of nearly a century’s worth of federal laws establishing three-judge trial courts and allowing certain cases to be appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court confirms that Congress does not legislative against the backdrop of the Appellate Jurisdiction Theory. To the contrary, a Hybrid Theory combining both traditional approaches not only provides a sound descriptive fit for both historical and current jurisdictional statutes and unconventional appellate procedures, but is more consistent with the structure of three-judge courts, Congress’s purposes in creating them, practical considerations, and the traditional rationales underlying stare decisis. Under a Hybrid Theory, three-judge district courts are presumptively bound to apply Court of Appeals precedent, even when their rulings are not subject to review there, because those courts occupy a superior location within the federal judicial hierarchy.
Keywords: precedent, stare decisis, three-judge court, three-judge district court, election law, voting rights, campaign finance, BCRA, Voting Rights Act, Mann-Elkins Act, Expedition Act, preliminary injunction, permanent injunction, constitutionality, remedies
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