Stare Decisis as Crying Wolf

Stare decisis is in the news again as the Supreme Court begins to consider requests to overrule abortion-rights precedents. To a great extent, the justices have spent years preparing for this moment, as every recent debate over precedent has seemingly had abortion rights looming in the background. Dissenting justices have adopted certain rhetorical strategies, and majority justices have had to respond. 

I explore this rhetorical dynamic in a forthcoming paper (Reason and Rhetoric in Edwards v. Vannoy) and reproduce a slightly edited excerpt below:

Imagine that you are a justice who generally hopes to protect existing case law from erosion or repudiation. You might think it is a good idea to complain about each and every instance of overruling, so as to keep stare decisis salient and make the majority coalition pay an ever-increasing “price” in professional and public esteem. But you would also worry about coming across as Chicken Little, or the Boy Who Cried Wolf. It isn’t always a big deal to overrule, even when doing so is wrong. And, sometimes, overruling is positively the right thing to do. Much as the Court would lose face by overruling too freely, as though precedent were legally irrelevant, dissenters can sacrifice their credibility by acting as though every new overruling is a fresh End of Days. So, what’s a dissenter to do?

One way of squaring the rhetorical circle is to try and have it both ways at different points in time. This solution requires selective forgetting: the importance of stare decisis is trumpeted in dissent after dissent, but the doom-and-gloom rhetoric attending each dissent is instantly swept under the rug. The point of this strategy is to make each transgression of stare decisis seem unprecedented, as though stare decisis had been eroded for the first time. A less helpful understanding of events, namely, that stare decisis has proven to be quite flexible, is thus kept out of view. This approach counts on the reader’s short memory—and, ironically, on the forgettability of the dissenter’s earlier rhetorical flourishes. 

All this raises the question of how the majority coalition might respond to our imagined dissenter’s rhetorical strategizing. The majority might do just what the dissenter hopes: wince at each rhetorical lashing, try to avoid the next one, and generally think hard before overruling. But there is another salient possibility: much as the public could come to wonder whether the dissenter is overdoing it, the majority might decide that there is no satisfying the opposition. Someone who cannot see that overrulings are sometimes justified—or just not a big deal—might not be worth appeasing. Thus, the majority could become numb to the lashing, and unafraid to overrule. The strong rhetoric against overruling would have defeated itself.

That reasoning can be taken still further. A cynical majority might put itself on the lookout for precedents to overrule. Not just any precedent will do, of course. Overruling cases that are either too important or too sound would tend to feed the dissenter’s critical flame. But when precedents are contrary to the would-be dissenter’s view of the merits, or else not terribly important, a decision to overrule can put the dissenter in a bind: she would have to moderate her rhetoric or else risk coming across as crying wolf. Notably, Ramos and Edwards respectively fit each half of that strategy, with Ramos, which established a right to unanimous criminal jury verdicts, appealing to (and splintering) the Court’s left wing and Edwards, which declined to apply Ramos retroactively in habeas cases, “overruling” only a never-used exception.

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Filed under Judicial Decision-making, Judicial Rhetoric, Stare Decisis, Supreme Court

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