What is precedent and why do courts think it is so important? In this lesson, students examine the role of precedent in Supreme Court decisions -- why precedents are usually followed and what justices take into consideration when they reverse precedents. This is the first of two lessons that comprise a unit on the power and importance of precedent in the decisions of the Supreme Court. For lesson two, see Understanding and Applying the Miranda Decision Lesson Plan. For extension activities to use with this unit, visit the Supreme Court website.
- Define the terms "precedent" and "stare decisis"
- Explain why precedent and stare decisis are important in the work of the Supreme Court of the United States
(1) 50 minute period
- Nixon and the Court QuickTime Video
Before The Lesson
- Download the video segment used in the lesson.
- Write the terms "precedent" and "stare decisis" on the board or a transparency. Write down the definitions too, but cover them up. (The definitions appear in the lesson plan in step five of Part I and in step two of Part II.)
- It would be helpful, but not necessary, if students had basic knowledge of these cases before engaging in this lesson: Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, Gideon v. Wainwright, and Miranda v. Arizona. The Supreme Court timeline and Street Law’s website offer additional background and teaching materials about those cases.
Part I: Introductory Activity
- Ask students to quietly think of a time when a parent, guardian, or teacher made a decision about something they did based on a similar situation in the past. (Do not solicit answers for discussion at this point, just let students think quietly.) Ask students to continue thinking quietly about the answer to these questions: Was his or her decision fair? Why or why not? (Again do not solicit answers for discussion at this point.)
- Ask three or four students to volunteer giving examples based on the questions above. Be sure each student also explains whether he or she thought the decision was fair and why. Try not to prompt students further, but if they are struggling you might offer one of the suggestions below:
- "You need to be home at 10:30 p.m.because your older sister needed to be home at 10:30 p.m.when she was your age."
- “This assignment was due yesterday. You've known for months that my policy is to take off 10 percent of the possible points every day it is late. I'm sticking to that."
- Next ask students to give an example of a time when they thought their parent, guardian, or teacher should not have applied the same old rules or reasons to a new situation. Once again, try not to prompt students further, but if they need help, you might suggest:
- "But my sister was my age more than 15 years ago. Times have changed and nobody comes home at 10:30 anymore."
- "But my grandmother was rushed to the hospital the night before last and I had to stay with her because my parents could not leave work. I did finish the project last night as soon as I could."
- Ask students to think about a time when their parent, guardian, or teacher seemed to ignore their own previous decision.
- Did that seem fair? Why or why not?
- What are the benefits and risks of sticking by the known rules?
- What are the benefits and risks of changing the rules for new situations?
- Tell students that you have just been talking about something very similar to the term "precedent." Ask students to try to define the word "precedent." As students suggest the meaning of the term, record their ideas on the board or transparency. Then compare their answers to the definition of "precedent" you have already written down.
Precedent: A court decision that guides future cases with similar questions.
Part II: Introduction to Precedent and Stare Decisis
- Explain that the Supreme Court justices wrestle with the issue of precedent on a daily basis, knowing that their decisions will affect not just the people in a particular case, but potentially millions of other Americans who could be in similar situations in the future. Their questions, like those in our introductory activity, are typically about when precedents should be honored and when they should be reversed. Different justices often have different views on this -- some even change their views over time.
- Explain the term "stare decisis," a legal term from Latin that means "to stand by things decided." This is basically to apply precedent. Show students the definition you have already recorded on the board and ask them to write it down.
- Ask students to move into groups of three. When they have settled with their groups, distribute the Precedent and Stare Decisis handout.
- Review the directions to be sure students understand their assignment. Tell students they have 15 minutes to complete the handout and write the ending time on the board.
- Ask students to discuss the answers to the questions on their handout.
Question A: Based on what you read, why is adhering to precedent (or stare decisis) important?
Answers will vary, but will likely include:
- It promotes predictable and consistent development of legal principles.
- It promotes reliance on judicial decisions.
- It limits the power of the judiciary.
- It helps people know what to expect in certain legal situations, etc.
Question B: Based on what you read, what do you think would be acceptable grounds for reversing an existing precedent?
Answers will vary, but will likely include:
- It has become indefensible over time.
- It is clearly wrong.
- It should not remain the law of the land.
- It is causing significant harm.
- The precedent is not workable.
- The precedent has been eroded by subsequent decisions, etc.
Part III: Introduction to Rehnquist and His Views on Precedent
- Explain to students that after Richard Nixon became president in 1969 and again in 1973, he was able to appoint four justices to the Court, and many legal scholars expected them to help overturn a number of precedents.
- Prepare students to watch the Nixon and the Court QuickTime Video. Before viewing, distribute the Guided Questions for Watching "Nixon and the Court". Review the purpose of the handout and direct students to focus on the questions for the first segment before they watch.
- 3. Play "Nixon and the Court." After the video ends, ask students to turn to a neighbor to discuss the questions and to answer as many questions as they can. Give them five minutes to do so.
Check For Understanding
- After students have discussed the answers with partners, ask volunteers to try to answer the questions in a class discussion. See the questions and answers below:
- What were some of the major campaign promises and themes during Richard Nixon's campaign?
Answer: Answers will vary, but will be along these lines: We live in a time of chaos and disorder. We can give you law and order. We can give you peace.
- What sort of justices did Nixon (and Rehnquist) want to appoint?
Answer: Answers will vary, but essentially, Nixon (and Rehnquist) wanted to change the direction of the Court. They were looking for judges who would be more likely to issue decisions that favored “law and order” over the rights of people accused of crimes. They wanted people with some judicial experience who would stick to the letter of the Constitution because they thought the Warren Court was too liberal and had interpreted the Constitution too loosely.
- Do you think Nixon and his appointees were likely to support upholding precedent and stare decisis? Why or why not.
Answer: Answers will vary, but should be supported with reasons.