In common law legal systems, a precedent or authority is a legal case establishing a principle or rule that a court or other judicial body may utilize when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts.
Types of precedents
Precedent that must be applied or followed is known as binding precedent (alternately mandatory precedent, mandatory or binding authority, etc.). Under the doctrine of stare decisis, a lower court must honor findings of law made by a higher court that is within the appeals path of cases the court hears. In state and federal courts in the United States of America, jurisdiction is often divided geographically among local trial courts, several of which fall under the territory of a regional appeals court. All appellate courts fall under a highest court (sometimes but not always called a "supreme court"). By definition, decisions of lower courts are not binding on courts higher in the system, nor are appeals court decisions binding on local courts that fall under a different appeals court. Further, courts must follow their own proclamations of law made earlier on other cases, and honor rulings made by other courts in disputes among the parties before them pertaining to the same pattern of facts or events, unless they have a strong reason to change these rulings (see Law of the case re: a court's previous holding being binding precedent for that court).
One law professor has described mandatory precedent as follows:
In extraordinary circumstances a higher court may overturn or overrule mandatory precedent, but will often attempt to distinguish the precedent before overturning it, thereby limiting the scope of the precedent.
Under the U.S. legal system, courts are set up in a hierarchy. At the top of the federal or national system is the United States Supreme Court, and underneath are lower federal courts (the Circuit Courts of Appeals, federal district courts, and some courts of specialized jurisdiction, such as bankruptcy courts). The state court systems have hierarchy structures similar to that of the federal system.
On questions as to the meaning of federal law including the U.S. Constitution, statutes, and regulations, the U.S. Supreme Court has the final say. When the U.S. Supreme Court says that the First Amendment applies in a specific way to suits for slander, then every court is bound by that precedent in its interpretation of the First Amendment as it applies to suits for slander.
If a lower court judge disagrees with a higher court precedent on what the First Amendment should mean, the lower court judge must rule according to the binding precedent. Until the higher court changes the rule (or, in the case of a federal statute, Congress changes the law), the binding precedent is authoritative on the meaning of the law. Although state courts are not part of the federal system, state courts are also bound by Supreme Court rulings as to the meaning and scope of federal law. State courts are not (generally) bound by Federal District courts or Circuit courts, however. Additionally, there are situations where a federal court must follow state law in making a decision.
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