The Role of Stare Decisis in California Law

by McManis Faulkner

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

- Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard

One of the most frequently cited civil opinions in California is Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court (1962) 57 Cal.2d 450, a state Supreme Court case instructing lower courts to follow previous decisions and respect precedence.  This deferential principle can be controversial at times and its inflexibility has occasionally led to harsh results.  Nevertheless, “the rule,” has had positive consequences as well.  Deference to earlier cases fosters predictability in the law and diminishes the risk of judicial partiality or caprice.  Intriguingly, while the principle was intended to moderate judicial opinions, it has fueled legal innovation and change.

As a general matter, judges reference, or “cite,” earlier legal opinions to explain the law and the reasoning behind their opinions.  They do not do this gratuitously—under the California Constitution, decisions of the courts of appeal and Supreme Court must provide “reasons stated.” (i) Consequently, opinions are peppered with citations to statutes and previous case opinions.  Naturally, some cases are mentioned more often than others.

Computer software and advanced search tools have made it easier than ever to analyze not only individual court opinions, but the whole universe of reported cases.  One pattern of interest for lawyers and academics is how often a particular case opinion has been cited by later opinions.  (ii)  Frequent citation suggests a case may state a new law or articulate a legal concept better than other opinions.  Admittedly, some opinions may obtain their fame by simply “catching on”—the more frequently a case is cited, as a general rule, the more likely it will be cited in the future.

Case statistics reveal that California courts have cited the case Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court more often than virtually any other civil opinion.  Fittingly, Auto Equity Sales is a court opinion about relying on court opinions.

To understand Auto Equity Sales, one must understand a fundamental principle of California’s legal system, the doctrine of stare decisis (“to stand by the decision”).  At early common law, judges often ignored other rulings—if they were even known to begin with.  Latin maxims were the authorities of the day.  It was not until the development of reliable reporter systems and the evolution of court hierarchies that the doctrine of stare decisis began to take hold.  Simply put, stare decisis is a rule that judges are obliged to follow previous decisions issued by higher courts. (iii)

Cases most often cite Auto Equity Sales for its statement that: “Under the doctrine of stare decisis, all tribunals exercising inferior jurisdiction are required to follow decisions of courts exercising superior jurisdiction.”  (iv)  In other words, lower courts must adhere to the opinions of higher courts.  Even if a lower court’s decision has been correctly decided, the lower court has improperly exceeded its “jurisdiction” if it refused to follow a rule established by a higher court.  (v)

Long before Auto Equity Sales, stare decisis was a well-established and widely accepted core principle of U.S. law.  It also was, and is, a controversial concept with significant drawbacks.

Critics of stare decisis contend that strict adherence to the principle: (1) compounds injustice caused by wrongly decided cases; (2) fails to accommodate social and political developments that render the earlier decision outdated or ineffective; (3) perpetuates bad law until legislative action; and (4) amplifies rulings by “activist judges,” who do not appreciate precedence, by requiring other judges to follow their opinions.  (vi)  At times, courts have pointed to Auto Equity Sales as an explanation for why they must make opinions based on incorrect or unfair law.

In the case In re Javier A., an appellate court stated that it was compelled to make an unfair ruling based on the doctrine of stare decisis and the case Auto Equity Sales.  The court, affirming a trial court, noted that the appellant was denied his right to jury trial under the California Constitution.  (vii)  The court explained that 60 years earlier, in In re Daedler (1924) 194 Cal. 320, the California Supreme Court had erroneously upheld a law providing for the denial of jury trials to juvenile delinquents.  (viii)  The appellate court noted: “Only because of the compulsion of Auto Equity do we refrain from reversing and remanding for a new trial where Javier would enjoy the right to trial by jury. Instead we can only urge the Supreme Court to reconsider the 60-year-old decision, which upheld the constitutionality of denying jury trials in juvenile proceedings.”  (ix)

While strict adherence to stare decisis can have harsh consequences, advocates for the doctrine argue the benefits outweigh the risks.  They contend stare decisis: (1) legitimizes judicial institutions by diminishing the effect of ideology and giving decisions lasting impact, (2) promotes judicial economy and avoids relitigation of legal issues, and (3) fosters predictability and outlines acceptable conduct.  (x)

Moreover, the principle of stare decisis has led to some of the most important cases in California and U.S. legal history.  The moderating rule that judges should defer to previous opinions has, paradoxically, spurred change in state law.  Innovative opinions—which might have disappeared into obscurity—have made impacts long after their issuance.  A list of these cases would include Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc. (strict liability for defective products), Drennan v. Star Paving Co. (promissory estoppel) and Dillion v. Legg (negligent infliction of emotional distress), among many others.

In sum, the principle of stare decisis plays a prominent role in California law, as demonstrated by courts’ frequent citation to Auto Equity Sales.  Although the doctrine can amplify mistakes and create lasting problems, it has been a necessary aspect of California’s rich common law tradition.  The rule not only promotes efficient and predictable rulings but also creates space for landmark cases to change the law—and thus helps the law keep up with changing times.


       i.          Cal. Const. art. VI,§ 14. This requirement arose out of constitutional amendment. The notion that higher courts must provide reasons for their rulings was initially resisted by the courts. An earlier attempt to codify the rule was rebuked by the state supreme court: “The Legislature can no more require this Court to state the reasons of its decisions, than this Court can require, for the validity of the statutes, that the Legislature shall accompany them with the reasons for their enactment.”  Houston v. Williams (1859) 13 Cal.24, 25.

      ii.          On a daily basis, most lawyers use this criterion without even thinking about it. Just as Google uses site popularity in arranging its results page, legal search engines incorporate frequency of citation in their search algorithms.

     iii.          The term stare decisis is from the maxim, stare decisis et non quieta movere: “to stand by matters that have been decided and not to disturb what is tranquil.”

     iv.          Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court (1962) 57 Cal. 2d 450, 455.

      v.          Id. at 454.

     vi.          The Rehnquist Court and the End of Constitutional Stare Decisis: Casey, Dickerson and the Consequences of Pragmatic Adjudication, 2002 Utah L. Rev. 53, 54-55

   vii.          In re Javier A., 159 Cal.App.3d. at 919.

  viii.          Id. at  949-950.

    ix.          Id. at 919.

     x.          The Rehnquist Court and the End of Constitutional Stare Decisis: Casey, Dickerson and the Consequences of Pragmatic Adjudication, 2002 Utah L. Rev. 53, 54-55

Tyler Atkinson is a general civil litigation associate at McManis Faulkner.



DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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