Gimme 5: What Every Lawyer Should Know about Stare Decisis
1. Geography matters in federal practice.
2. There is only one California Court of Appeal.
The California Court of Appeal is divided into six geographic districts, and some districts are further subdivided into divisions, some of which have geographic boundaries (e.g., the Fourth District, Division 3, covers Orange County). Under the federal scheme, only the decisions from the appellate court that would entertain an appeal from a given trial court’s decision bind that trial court. But under the California scheme, there are no such geographical boundaries to decisions of the California Court of Appeal. Every superior court must follow any published decision from any district and any division of any court of appeal. Cuccia v. Superior Court, 153 Cal. App. 4th 347, 353-54 (2007) (stare decisis requires a superior court to follow a published court of appeal decision even if the trial judge believes the appellate decision was wrongly decided).
Thus, a court of appeal decision from the Fourth District, Division Two (covering Riverside and San Bernardino Counties) is just as binding on a superior court in Sacramento as a decision from the Third District, which is the court with appellate jurisdiction over a Sacramento judge’s rulings. See In re Pope, 2008 WL 73683. Philosophically, there is only one California Court of Appeal, albeit administratively divided into districts and sometimes subdivided into divisions. Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court, 57 Cal. 2d 450, 455 (1962).
3. Horizontal stare decisis operates differently between federal and California practice.
But within the Ninth Circuit, horizontal stare decisis operates to bind subsequent panels. Thus, the first panel of Ninth Circuit judges to publish an opinion on an issue binds not only district courts within the circuit but also subsequent Ninth Circuit panels. For the Ninth Circuit to overrule its own precedent, it must issue an en banc decision. Miranda B. v. Kitzhaber, 328 F. 3d 1181, 1185 (9th Cir. 2003) (panel must follow prior panel decisions unless a Supreme Court decision, an en banc decision, or subsequent legislation undermines its precedential value).
In contrast, there is no horizontal stare decisis between appellate panels of the California Court of Appeal. Marriage of Shaban, 88 Cal. App. 4th 398, 409 (2001). Panels of the California Court of Appeal are not bound by prior panels, even within the same district. Thus, any given district or division of the court of appeal may disagree with a decision by any other district or division. Hence, while the U.S. Supreme Court regulates circuit-splits from the 13 federal circuits, the California Supreme Court oversees potential splits from effectively 19 separate courts of appeal (i.e., counting each of the six districts plus the divisions within those districts as independent courts).
As for the federal and state supreme courts, each is free to overrule its own precedents. State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3, 20 (1997); Freeman & Mills, Inc. v. Belcher Oil Co., 11 Cal. 4th 85, 93 (1995). Under what circumstances a high court should exercise its discretion to reverse itself, however, is the topic of much scholarly debate; e.g., Michael Sinclair, Precedent, Super-Precedent, 14 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 363 (2007); Lawrence B. Solum, The Supreme Court in Bondage: Constitutional Stare Decisis, Legal Formalism, and the Future of Unenumerated Rights, 9 U. Pa. J. Const. L. 155 (Oct. 2006) (discussing “super stare decisis”).
4. Superior courts are free to choose when faced with conflicting precedent.
Some superior court judges may view this freedom as more theoretical than real, however. In practice, “a superior court ordinarily will follow an appellate opinion emanating from its own district even though it is not bound to do so.” McCallum v. McCallum, 190 Cal. App. 3d 308, 315 (1987).
5. Stare decisis across court systems.
State courts applying federal law are bound by decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Elliott v. Albright, 209 Cal. App. 3d 1028, 1034 (1989). But they are not bound by district or circuit court decisions—although such rulings are entitled to “substantial deference.” Yee v. City of Escondido, 224 Cal. App. 3d 1349, 1351 (1990). Finally, federal court decisions on state law are not binding on state courts. Qualified Patients Ass'n v. City of Anaheim, 187 Cal. App. 4th 734, 764 (2010); Bodell v. Walbrook (9th Cir. 1997) 119 F. 3d 1411, 1422 (Kozinski, J., dissenting) ("The good thing when a federal court misapplies state law is that its opinion can be ignored by the state courts."). (Note to readers: The citations to Qualified Patients Ass'n and Bodell were added after the article was originally published.)
These five points are merely the tip of the iceberg. Many interesting complications lurk beneath the surface of the seemingly simple doctrine of stare decisis. For further general guidance, see Goelz & Watts, Rutter Group Practice Guide: Federal Ninth Circuit Civil Appellate Practice Sections 8:150-8:206 (2007); Eisenberg, Horvitz & Wiener, California Practice Guide: Civil Appeals and Writs Sections 14:191-14:197 (2007).