Stare Decisis

Principle of Stare Decisis

The principle of stare decisis enjoins adherence by lower courts to doctrinal rules established by this Court in its final decisions.  It is based on the principle that once a question of law has been examined and decided, it should be deemed settled and closed to further argument.[49] Basically, it is a bar to any attempt to relitigate the same issues,[50] necessary for two simple reasons: economy and stability. In our jurisdiction, the principle is entrenched in Article 8 of the Civil Code.[51]

This doctrine of adherence to precedents or stare decisis was applied by the English courts and was later adopted by the United States. Associate Justice (now Chief Justice) Reynato S. Puno’s discussion on the historical development of this legal principle in his dissenting opinion in Lambino v. Commission on Elections[52] is enlightening:

The latin phrase stare decisis et non quieta movere means “stand by the thing and do not disturb the calm.” The doctrine started with the English Courts. Blackstone observed that at the beginning of the 18th century, “it is an established rule to abide by former precedents where the same points come again in litigation.” As the rule evolved, early limits to its application were recognized: (1) it would not be followed if it were “plainly unreasonable”; (2) where courts of equal authority developed conflicting decisions; and, (3) the binding force of the decision was the “actual principle or principles necessary for the decision; not the words or reasoning used to reach the decision.”

The doctrine migrated to theUnited States. It was recognized by the framers of the U.S. Constitution. According toHamilton, “strict rules and precedents” are necessary to prevent “arbitrary discretion in the courts.”Madisonagreed but stressed that “x x x once the precedent ventures into the realm of altering or repealing the law, it should be rejected.” Prof. Consovoy well noted that Hamilton and Madison “disagree about the countervailing policy considerations that would allow a judge to abandon a precedent.” He added that their ideas “reveal a deep internal conflict between the concreteness required by the rule of law and the flexibility demanded in error correction. It is this internal conflict that the Supreme Court has attempted to deal with for over two centuries.”

Indeed, two centuries of American case law will confirm Prof. Consovoy’s observation although stare decisis developed its own life in the United States. Two strains of stare decisis have been isolated by legal scholars. The first, known as vertical stare decisis deals with the duty of lower courts to apply the decisions of the higher courts to cases involving the same facts. The second, known as horizontal stare decisis requires that high courts must follow its own precedents. Prof. Consovoy correctly observes that vertical stare decisis has been viewed as an obligation, while horizontal stare decisis, has been viewed as a policy, imposing choice but not a command. Indeed, stare decisis is not one of the precepts set in stone in our Constitution.

It is also instructive to distinguish the two kinds of horizontal stare decisis — constitutional stare decisis and statutory stare decisis. Constitutional stare decisis involves judicial interpretations of the Constitution while statutory stare decisis involves interpretations of statutes. The distinction is important for courts enjoy more flexibility in refusing to apply stare decisis in constitutional litigations. Justice Brandeis’ view on the binding effect of the doctrine in constitutional litigations still holds sway today. In soothing prose, Brandeis stated: “Stare decisis is not . . . a universal and inexorable command. The rule of stare decisis is not inflexible. Whether it shall be followed or departed from, is a question entirely within the discretion of the court, which is again called upon to consider a question once decided.” In the same vein, the venerable Justice Frankfurter opined: “the ultimate touchstone of constitutionality is the Constitution itself and not what we have said about it.” In contrast, the application of stare decisis on judicial interpretation of statutes is more inflexible. As Justice Stevens explains: “after a statute has been construed, either by this Court or by a consistent course of decision by other federal judges and agencies, it acquires a meaning that should be as clear as if the judicial gloss had been drafted by the Congress itself.” This stance reflects both respect for Congress’ role and the need to preserve the courts’ limited resources.

In general, courts follow the stare decisis rule for an ensemble of reasons, viz.: (1) it legitimizes judicial institutions; (2) it promotes judicial economy; and, (3) it allows for predictability. Contrariwise, courts refuse to be bound by the stare decisis rule where (1) its application perpetuates illegitimate and unconstitutional holdings; (2) it cannot accommodate changing social and political understandings; (3) it leaves the power to overturn bad constitutional law solely in the hands of Congress; and, (4) activist judges can dictate the policy for future courts while judges that respect stare decisis are stuck agreeing with them.

In its 200-year history, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to follow the stare decisis rule and reversed its decisions in 192 cases. The most famous of these reversals is Brown v. Board of Education which junked Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal doctrine.” Plessy upheld as constitutional a state law requirement that races be segregated on public transportation. In Brown, the U.S. Supreme Court, unanimously held that “separate . . . is inherently unequal.” Thus, by freeing itself from the shackles of stare decisis, the U.S. Supreme Court freed the colored Americans from the chains of inequality. In the Philippine setting, this Court has likewise refused to be straitjacketed by the stare decisis rule in order to promote public welfare. In La Bugal-B’laan Tribal Association, Inc. v. Ramos, we reversed our original ruling that certain provisions of the Mining Law are unconstitutional. Similarly, in Secretary of Justice v. Lantion, we overturned our first ruling and held, on motion for reconsideration, that a private respondent is bereft of the right to notice and hearing during the evaluation stage of the extradition process.

An examination of decisions on stare decisis in major countries will show that courts are agreed on the factors that should be considered before overturning prior rulings. These are workability, reliance, intervening developments in the law and changes in fact. In addition, courts put in the balance the following determinants: closeness of the voting, age of the prior decision and its merits.

The leading case in deciding whether a court should follow the stare decisis rule in constitutional litigations is Planned Parenthood v. Casey. It established a 4-pronged test. The court should (1) determine whether the rule has proved to be intolerable simply in defying practical workability; (2) consider whether the rule is subject to a kind of reliance that would lend a special hardship to the consequences of overruling and add inequity to the cost of repudiation; (3) determine whether related principles of law have so far developed as to have the old rule no more than a remnant of an abandoned doctrine; and, (4) find out whether facts have so changed or come to be seen differently, as to have robbed the old rule of significant application or justification.[53]

          To be forthright, respondent’s argument that the doctrinal guidelines prescribed in Santos and Molina should not be applied retroactively for being contrary to the principle of stare decisis is no longer new. The same argument was also raised but was struck down in Pesca v. Pesca,[54] and again in Antonio v. Reyes.[55] In these cases, we explained that the interpretation or construction of a law by courts constitutes a part of the law as of the date the statute is enacted. It is only when a prior ruling of this Court is overruled, and a different view is adopted, that the new doctrine may have to be applied prospectively in favor of parties who have relied on the old doctrine and have acted in good faith, in accordance therewith under the familiar rule of “lex prospicit, non respicit.”

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