The US has an extensive list of laws that you would think cover every little possibility, but in reality, it tends to come up short more often than not. This is because, while extensive, there is a lot of room for grey areas, various interpretations, and simply poorly-worded laws that create loopholes.
Because of that, many of the standards you see in today’s legal field are based on “precedents”, or the law being pulled into question and debated previously.
Since legal precedents are such an important part of today’s legal field, we want to go over what they are, how they work, and some of the most impactful precedents that have been set since our country’s founding days.
Let’s get started.
What is a Legal Precedent?
We already touched on this briefly, and if you’re in the legal field, you’re probably well-acquainted with legal precedents. However, if you’re facing legal problems for the first time, this is a concept you should be fully aware of.
As we said, a precedent is essentially the outcome of a law being interpreted in the past. We’ll give plenty of in-depth breakdowns later, but here’s a good example.
Let’s say there’s a law governing acquisitions and the tax liability that is required by either party. It’s essentially a word salad that can be interpreted in several ways.
Until that law is tested for the first time, it doesn’t really mean much. Of course, it’s an outline, and it is a law, but until the legal system has a proven way to tell how that law should be interpreted, there’s a lot of grey area surrounding it.
So, the first time that law is tested, lawyers from both teams will spend a lot more time and energy arguing the merits of the law, the true meaning of the law, and how that law should be applied compared to subsequent cases. As the legal system works its way through this hurdle, eventually, an outcome will be achieved. That outcome is the precedent.
The precedent set in that first high-profile case will likely impact every case that comes after it because it will be looked back on, quoted, and used for general guidance.
Are Legal Precedents Permanent?
Once a precedent is set, it’s typically very long-standing, and it is used to determine the outcome of subsequent cases. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t ever be challenged or changed, though. In fact, they’re challenged fairly frequently.
As society grows and the public view of law changes, old standards might be reworked to match the changes in society, new laws might be written that change the way older laws work, and older precedents simply don’t hold up any more, and a large variety of other things can happen that can make that precedent fade into obscurity in favor of something that seemingly works better.
The legal system is constantly evolving. As it should meet the needs of those under its rule. Fortunately, legal precedents are real-world applications of the law. So, they tend to be impactful and helpful for decades after conception.
Who Sets Legal Precedents?
Legal precedents are actually part of the legal system. They’re not just commonly accepted decisions that can be upheld or discarded depending on the judge. Via the doctrine of Stare Decisis, a precedent becomes the official way of handling cases that match the case that set the precedent. So, a precedent set in a case revolving around a self-defense case where the person defending themselves shot their attacker as they ran away would be used for every case where the same thing happened. That goes for any type of case from civil to criminal.
Who sets these precedents? Well, practically every courtroom does. However, there’s a hierarchy that is followed.
When a court sets a precedent via a novel case, it has to use that standard for all subsequent cases. However, it’s not just for that court, and that court doesn’t have the end say throughout the entire legal system.
Every court of lower rank must also use that precedent for matching cases. If a court at the top of the state level set a precedent, lower-ranking state courts would have to do the same. However, higher-ranking courts would not have to. They could approach a similar situation from an entirely different direction.
Some of the Most Impactful Legal Precedents Set in the United States
Now that you have a better understanding of what a legal precedent is and how it works, we want to break down some of the legal precedents that have helped shape the modern legal world.
Roe VS Wade
This is one you’re likely very familiar with even if you didn’t know exactly what a legal precedent was. Roe VS Wade was a 1973 US Supreme Court case that looked at a woman’s right to have an abortion or not. The case itself was a lawsuit over denied abortions.
Ultimately, Roe VS Wade decided that it is a woman’s constitutional right to choose whether they abort a pregnancy or not. Now, since all subordinate courts are forced to accept the precedent of higher ranking courts, and the US Supreme Court is the highest-ranking court in the country, all other courts, in all fifty states, were forced to accept the
precedent. This put an end to highly restrictive abortion laws, ended bans entirely, and set up the groundwork for abortion legislation to start being developed.
If you were even slightly aware of the ongoings of our nation’s legal system a year ago, you know that Roe VS Wade was overturned. This is an example of how a precedent, even an old one that has impacted the overall legal system dramatically, can be changed. The US Supreme Court itself overruled it in 2022.
As such, states regained their individual rights to legislate abortion. Some states opted to be even less restrictive, and some practically banned it entirely outside of emergency medical situations. Regardless of where you fell on the issue, it’s a great example of how a legal precedent works and the sweeping effects it can have on the country as a whole because it’s one of the few recent changes that were high-profile enough to garner the attention of the average citizen.
Miranda VS Arizona
Have you ever gotten into trouble with the police or watched a law enforcement-themed show and heard the “Miranda Rights”? Your Miranda Rights as a citizen aren’t simply there by default. They were earned
via a legal precedent.
Your Miranda Rights are the rights police officers are required to inform you of when making an arrest or interrogating you. They’ve become so commonplace in pop culture media that you probably know you have the right to remain silent and that anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law.
This stemmed from the Miranda VS Arizona case in which a man was charged with kidnapping and rape. Police interrogated Miranda for two hours without informing him of his fifth amendment right, and while initially sentenced to 30 years on each account due to a signed confession, the supreme court overturned the initial ruling, because Miranda was not aware of his right to remain silent.
Arizona then retried him while omitting the unlawfully acquired confession, and a similar result was had, but since Miranda was aware, he was successfully given 20-30 years in prison for his crimes. There are four other similar cases that were also looked at with Miranda V Arizona from other states, but it’s unnecessary to go over each one.
This precedent created the Miranda Rights that were adopted across the country.
Dred Scott V Sandford
This is a very old case that is, luckily, no longer a precedent used by today’s legal system. However, it was a major tipping point toward the initiation of the Civil War, and it did have a dramatic effect on our legal system to the point that some aspects of its consequences are still relevant today.
The Dred Scott V Sandford case was a lawsuit brought about by Dred Scott against the federal court. Dred Scott was an enslaved black man. He and his wife sued the federal government for their freedom. On one hand, it determined that slaves were not citizens and could not sue in federal court, but it also led to the massive uprising over the Missouri Compromise; an agreement that would abolish slavery, but the supreme court decided it was beyond its constitutional limits and struck it down.
As such, slave owners were able to transfer their slaves to any state they wanted, even the northern states that were free territories, and this embroiled the northerners. In turn, the South seceded to form the confederacy, and the rest is history.
The implications of the supreme court’s decision led to numerous subsequent laws that inspired some of the post-civil-war legislation that led to the civil rights movement, and in general, it had a lasting negative impact that is still being worked on in various ways.
Brown V Board of Education
This is another civil rights-related precedent, but this is more recent. Until 1954, schools were racially segregated between black and white students. The Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution’s 14th amendment and determined that segregating schools did not provide equal protection for all. As you probably know, this sparked both an enthusiastic push to continue desegregating the United States and emboldened those who wanted to keep it segregated.
This ruling impacted further civil rights manners beyond schools, and it was essentially the start of the civil rights movement. Without this landmark case, many of the equal freedoms we have today would not have been possible.
Are Legal Precedents Always So Impactful?
The examples we talked about today are landmark cases that completely revolutionized various aspects of national law. They completely changed the landscape of our country and how we function as a nation. However, it isn’t always so impactful on such a massive scale.
Legal precedents are formed for practically everything. If there’s a law, there’s typically a precedent behind it. Something as simple as dealing with tax evasion or how to distribute custody of a child between divorcing parents all have legal precedents attached to them. It’s how our country’s legal system works.
First, laws go down on paper, and then they’re put to the test in real life. They’re challenged or require professional interpretation, and the outcome is used going forward as a standard.
Is It Important to Understand Legal Precedents?
If you’re in the legal field, you obviously understand just how crucial legal precedents are. You’ll be working with them from the very first case you work on to the last. However, knowing relevant precedents to the type of case you’re facing as a civilian is also crucial.
The precedent will be used to determine how the court interprets all aspects of the case. By understanding it, you can understand the viewpoint of the court, and you can pinpoint areas where the court has failed to abide by the precedent and strengthen your own argument.
Not knowing how the court is going to look at a case is a good way to end up losing.
Getting Help with Understanding Legal Precedents, Developing Arguments, and
If you’re facing the legal system, or you’re a legal team dealing with an issue you’re simply not sure of, getting help is crucial. Even the most experienced attorneys occasionally need help with understanding convoluted legal concepts, getting the right experts on their side, and a number of other things in today’s extremely complex legal system.
For that, Litigation Legal Insight is here to help.
We specialize in helping you through your legal problems and providing you with the insight you need to make your case as solid as possible. Whether you’re heading into a novel case, simply need to find expert witnesses, or need any other help with the litigation process, contact us, today.