Judicial Decision Making and Case Law
In a legal context, a decision is an outcome of a case or proceeding before a government agency, arbitrator, judge, or other legal tribunal. The decision is often considered the first step in an interpretation by a judgment or a court in a case.
The term decision is often interchanged with an opinion or a judgment. Technically, this is incorrect since an opinion is a document written to describe the reasons for reaching a decision and a judgment is the court’s decision in a written form with the clerk’s notes or minutes.
Decisions can include:
• Provisional or inter-locutory orders made by the court
• Final judgments
Legal decisions are most important when looking at case law. In a common law court, civil trials look at decisions on previous cases that dealt with similar issues. These court decisions rely on case law, which is the reported set of judicial decisions from certain appellate courts as well as other courts that are the first occurrence of a new interpretation to the law.
Because of these decisions with new interpretations, they can be cited by future courts as precedent, which is called stare decisis. This use of previous decisions is not applicable to all areas of the law including:
• Statutory laws: rely on codes and statutes that were created and enacted by a legislative body.
• Regulatory laws: based on the statutes and are established by various federal agencies
In cases where the trial or hearing is not considered in a court of first impression, their decisions do not act as precedents for future court decisions.
In common law, a court’s decision on how the law is applicable to a particular case relies on the interpretation of the statutes and application of relevant precedents that should how previous decisions were handled. Under the doctrine of state decisis, courts are almost entirely bound to their own previous precedents and decisions from precious cases.
Furthermore, lower courts have to follow these decisions of the higher courts as well. This applies not only in the to the common law system in the U.S., but also in other common law systems across the world. For example, the Court of Appeals and the High court in England are bound by their previous decisions, but neither of them are bound by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom or the County Courts.
Decisions from higher courts do not have much oversight over any of the lower courts of record since they cannot overrule the lower courts. This action is usually left to the higher appeal courts. Furthermore, a lower court cannot rule against a binding precedent, no matter how unjust to may seem. The court can only express the wish that the legislature or a higher court will reform whatever rule is at hand.