Certain Supreme Court cases haunt the American people. When particular issues land on the Court’s docket, some Americans proclaim that, of course, the Court will rule this way because, don’t you know, there is a precedent for that. Free speech, free exercise, the Commerce Clause, and abortion—these are only a few of the issues that cause Americans on the left and the right to hold their breaths and wonder, “Will this be the case where the Court overturns (fill in the blank case).
Is Americans’ concern with precedents misplaced? Is the Supreme Court obliged to follow its own precedents?
No. The Supreme Court’s foremost duty is to uphold the commands of the Constitution. If the Court determines that one of its prior decisions was incorrect, it must overturn this precedent.
Precedents should not, however, be dismissed lightly. As Alexander Hamilton explains in Federalist 78, it is “the proper and peculiar province” of the Court to address some of the weightiest constitutional questions. The answers it gives are very important to the stability of our law, a feature necessary for good government. Consequently, precedent holds some weight in determining the proper way to interpret the Constitution.
Despite the importance of precedent, the Constitution remains the supreme law of the land, and the Court and its observers may fairly consider whether a particular decision was right or wrong. The Supreme Court may therefore revisit some of its doctrines and try to adjust its pronouncements to the commands of the Constitution.
This question was reprinted from the new First Principles page at Heritage.org. For more answers to frequently asked questions, visit http://www.heritage.org/Initiatives/First-Principles/basics.