61 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2020 Last revised: 8 Jul 2021
Date Written: September 26, 2020
“Settled law” appears frequently in judicial opinions — sometimes to refer to binding precedent, sometimes to denote precedent that has acquired a more mystical permanence, and sometimes as a substantive part of legal doctrine. During judicial confirmation hearings, the term is bandied about as Senators, advocacy groups, and nominees discuss judicial philosophy and deeper ideological commitments. But its varying and often contradictory uses have given rise to a concern that settled law is simply a repository for hopelessly disparate ideas. Without definitional precision, it risks becoming nothing more than empty jargon.
We contend that settled law is actually a meaningful concept, even though it does not embody any single, unified idea. First, we argue that controlling law, which essentially corresponds to binding precedent, is a fundamentally distinct concept that is neither synonymous with nor a subset of settled law. Second, we draw on seminal jurisprudential theories to build a taxonomy of five frameworks that capture how legal actors can invoke settled law, both rhetorically and doctrinally. Third, we demonstrate how a clearer understanding of settled law can make doctrine more coherent and administrable. Situating certain doctrines within the appropriate frameworks, and not conflating controlling law and settled law, would resolve myriad doctrinal anomalies. Moreover, greater conceptual precision can improve political rhetoric during the confirmation process by promoting clearer dialogue and discouraging legal actors from talking past one another.
Keywords: settled law, stare decisis, jurisprudence, qualified immunity, plain error, judicial nominations, legal theory
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation