I understand that US district courts are generally required to follow precedent set by the appeals court directly superior to the district court, while opinions of other appeals courts may be influential, but are not binding. Similarly, appeals courts (indeed all inferior courts) are of course bound to follow precedent set in rulings of the supreme court.

Is the mandate to respect the precedent set by superior courts explicit in statute somewhere? I looked in the US code, but could not find it. Is it specified in the judiciary's rules of procedure?

  • You are not asking for a technical basis, you're asking for a written authority. The technical basis is the common law which is centuries old.
    – user6726
    Feb 14 at 16:15
  • @user6726 are you saying that enacting a statute that codifies a principle of common law does not change the technical basis of the principle? That doesn't seem correct.
    – phoog
    Feb 14 at 17:09
  • As I said, the technical basis is the common law, and you know that. Since you didn't self-answer with the actual technical basis (cf. David Siegel's answer), this isn't an attempt at a canonical self-answer. The only reasonable interpretation of the question is that you're looking for a written authority, and not just any technical basis. Written authority are a subset of the possible technical bases.
    – user6726
    Feb 14 at 17:26
  • 2
    @user6726 The technical basis may originally have been the common law, but it's not unreasonable to ask whether it's been codified since then. There's tons of common law that has either been codified or overruled by statutes.
    – D M
    Feb 14 at 17:29
  • 1
    @user6726 I know that the historical origin is the common law, but I am not convinced that common law continues to be relevant after a statutory enactment. I know that in the absence of a statute the common law would be the technical basis. As to the motivation behind this question, it arises from thinking about the senate being bound by its own precedent only if it chooses to be, and I wonder whether the courts' application of binding precedent is similarly attributable solely to the judiciary. If there were a statutory provision, it would be imposed on the courts by congress.
    – phoog
    Feb 14 at 17:37


The importance of following precedent, and the principle of stare decisis were inherited by the early US legal system from the British Common Law system, and have been taken as part of the natural order of the legal system by US courts ever since.

This extends even to a court overruling itself. US Courts are notoriously reluctant to overrule their past decisions, even when current court members agree, However they will do so from time to time. The US Supreme Court in particular will flatly overturn previous decisions, especially on Constitutional issues, when it thinks there is no other way to achieve a proper outcome, although it often prefers to distinguish the prior decision without actually overruling it.

I think the fastest and most extreme case where the US Supreme Court overruled itself was that of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), the second flag-salute case. (This was also a particularly significant case.) This reversed Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940) a case on the exact same issue, only three years previously, and a vote of 8-1 on the first case became a vote of 6-3 the other way, with only one new Justice on the Court. Only Justice Frankfurter, the author of the fist decision, issued a dissenting opinion in the Barnette case, and no other Justice formally joined that opinion.


I cannot find any such statute, and heavily doubt that one would exist. I also saw nothing in the rules for appellate procedure.

If you're looking for something written down about how lower courts must respect Supreme Court precedent, then the Supreme Court itself said it in STATE OIL COMPANY, Petitioner, v. Barkat U. KHAN and Khan & Associates, Inc., 522 U.S. 3 (1997) (emphasis mine):

Despite what Chief Judge Posner aptly described as Albrecht's "infirmities, [and] its increasingly wobbly, moth-eaten foundations,'' 93 F.3d, at 1363, there remains the question whether Albrecht deserves continuing respect under the doctrine of stare decisis. The Court of Appeals was correct in applying that principle despite disagreement with Albrecht, for it is this Court's prerogative alone to overrule one of its precedents.

They said this despite overruling that previous decision themselves.

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