Stare Decisis and the Supreme Court(s): What States Can Learn from Gamble
32 Pages Posted: 27 Feb 2020 Last revised: 9 Jun 2020
Date Written: January 24, 2020
The Supreme Court has recently begun to explore the theoretical underpinnings to its long-adhered-to stare decisis doctrine. In 2019, Justice Thomas explained his views in his concurrence in Gamble v. United States, offering both a scathing critique of the Court’s current application of stare decisis and a detailed account of his own textually grounded approach to precedent. This Note takes Justice Thomas's concurrence as a starting place for raising stare decisis considerations at the state court level.
While almost all questions before the Supreme Court require statutory or constitutional interpretation, state courts of last resort occupy a unique place in the American judicial landscape. As common-law courts, state supreme courts are empowered to develop common-law doctrines in addition to interpreting democratically enacted texts. This Note argues that these two distinct state court functions—interpretation of statutes and constitutions and common-law judging—call for two distinct approaches to stare decisis, a distinction that is often muddied in practice. Justice Thomas’s concurrence in Gamble provides the framework for each approach, a framework based on the genesis and development of stare decisis from its English common-law roots.
Specifically, this Note argues that even if the Supreme Court does not accept Justice Thomas’s approach, state supreme courts should when deciding state statutory and constitutional questions. The distinct nature of state constitutions, the state legislative process, and state legislative power in general call for a textually grounded approach to stare decisis of the kind Justice Thomas proposed in his Gamble concurrence. Conversely, this Note argues that state supreme courts should adhere to traditional stare decisis formulations when resolving common-law disputes because the doctrine of stare decisis itself developed at common law and has greater legal and practical significance in the common-law context.
This Note won the 2020 Arthur Abel Memorial Writing Competition at Notre Dame Law School.
Keywords: Stare decisis, originalism, federalism, statutory interpretation
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