Stare Decisis FAQ

stare decisis

Stare Decisis FAQ

I am teaching Legal Research and Writing this semester at Trinity Law School, and it’s been so fun relearning concepts from law school. (over 25 years ago!)

Stare Decisis

Stare decisis is Latin for “stand by things decided”.  It is a doctrine that secures predictiability and consistency in law.  In general, if the law is decided on a certain issue, Judges cannot just come along and change it with their own opinions.  It is a checking mechanism on judicial officers, and promotes fairness.

Higher Courts Bind Lower Courts Within the State, but Not Vice Versa

There is a hierarchy for the checks and balances.

Vertical Stare Decisis

In general, higher court decisions bind lower courts in the same state. This is known as vertical stare decisis.

Higher courts bind lower courts; lower courts don’t bind higher courts.

Equal courts may yield to each other, but they are not bound.  (Their rulings are persuasive authority to each other, not mandatory authority)

Horizontal Stare Decisis

What about courts of equal rank?   This is the concept of horizontal stare decisis.

In California, there is NO horizontal stare decisis between any of the Court of Appeals.  (It’s different in Federal court, as you will see below).


This means none of the 19 divisions of the 6 Appeals Court districts are bound by each other’s rulings, EVEN in the same district.

So what happens if there are different rulings on the same legal issue?

Enter the California Supreme Court.

California Hierarchy of Courts

Now, let’s discuss the rank of courts in California.

In California, there are 58 Counties.

The state courts are organized in the following hierarchy (highest to lowest):

Highest – California Supreme Court

Intermediate – Courts of Appeal (6 appellate districts), there are a total of 19 divisions. Picture of what areas each covers below.

california appellate courts
california appellate courts

Click here for the California Courts of Appeal Visitors Guide, taken from their website.

Lowest – Superior Courts.  (there are 450+ superior courts).

California superior courts are bound by the decisions of California Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.

They are not bound by decisions of other state courts, like Texas or New York.

California Court of Appeals and California Supreme Court are NOT bound by the decisions of the superior courts.

What about Federal Courts?

The trial courts in the federal judicial system are called United States District Courts.

There are 94 districts courts in the federal system.

California is divided into 4 federal districts: northern, central, southern and eastern.

Among western states, only California and Washington have more than one federal district.

Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Oregon all have just one federal district.

Illustration of Federal v. California Court Set-Up

Confused yet?  Here is a picture for you.

California and federal court chart
California and federal court chart
Due to Vertical Stare Decisis, California Lower Courts are Bound By ANY Appellate Court of Any of the 6 Appellate Districts

Remember, ANY higher court decision (in ANY appellate district, not just the one the trial court sits in) binds the lower court.

So, a court of appeal decision from the 1st District (covering San Francisco) is just as binding on a Los Angeles superior court (2nd District) as a decision from the 2nd District.

However, due to NO Horizontal Decisis, California Courts of Equal Rank can Have Conflicting Decisions.

Since the appellate districts aren’t bound by each other (courts of equal rank), there could potentially exist a difference in rulings.

If Conflicting Upper Court Decisions, Which One?

In that case, the lower courts can choose to follow whichever ruling.  (However, in practice, it will most likely pick the appellate district covering their own).

BIG Difference in Federal!

Unlike California, in the federal system, the decisions of the intermediate courts of appeals are binding to courts of equal rank as to that district.

For example, a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision is mandatory authority ONLY in district courts in California, but otherwise persuasive in district courts in Texas, which is in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

What Gets Filed in State and What Gets Filed in Federal?

State courts hear substantive issues concerning state law, such as family law, criminal law, and civil law.

Federal courts will hear cases where there is a diversity of citizenship, or where there is a federal question involved.

In addition, federal courts have jurisdiction over cases involving the United States government, the Constitution or federal laws, or controversies between states or between the U.S. government and foreign governments.

Sometimes the issue involves both state and federal law

In the Family Law arena, below are some examples where that could happen. (Thank you, Ariel, the best family law appeals attorney I know)

  1.  Restrained party in DVRO claims violation of his 1st or 2nd Amendment Rights.
  2. Defendant of contempt order claims violation of constitutional rights like jury trial, self-incrimination, speedy trial, right to counsel, Brady.

If the complaint involves a federal question, the plaintiff is usually allowed to file it in either state or federal court.

But if he decides to file in state court, he’s stuck in state court unless the defendant removes the case to federal court.  But that’s to be discussed in Civil Procedure (I’m not teaching that this semester!)

Have a case like this?

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