In making decisions in civil or criminal matters, courts examine laws within the relative codes that pertain to the issues at hand. Quite often, the written law will contain information applicable to the case before the court, thus allowing the court to make a decisive ruling.
In other matters, however, a court may choose to employ the doctrine of stare decisis, or precedent, when coming to a final decision in a given case. Utilizing the doctrine of precedent may be most useful for a case in which the prescriptions of the law fall short of what is necessary to make a decision.
On occasion, if the precedent set by a specific court is particularly compelling, it may be examined in future rulings, and may even become written law. In other circumstances, a ruling may overwrite the validity of the current code, and force the legal community to reexamine the language in the existing legislation.
Throughout history, legal precedent has had significant affects on the laws of Texas. The following provides an in-depth look on the issue of precedent, and how it has impacted certain laws in the state.
What is the Doctrine of Precedent in Texas?
As previously mentioned, the doctrine of precedent is a method of making a final ruling on a case by examining past decisions made by other courts. The rulings made by a previous court can help shed light on the appropriate course of action for the case at hand. In many cases courts will adhere to a precedent set in a previous case, although this does not hold true universally; in the face of a precedent, a court may still choose to rule in a contrasting way, often with support from specific facts of the case.
It is also important to note that precedent may be binding in some circumstances. For example, if a precedent is set by a higher court, it becomes binding for all lower courts that face similar issues (a precedent set by a lower court will not be considered binding, but it may still be examined in future cases).
The doctrine of precedent can be an extremely useful tool for a court looking to make an official ruling. By examining the relevant laws, as well as any precedent-setting court cases that involved similar issues, the court is able to come to the most reasonable conclusion.
Examples of Precedent
In order to fully understand the doctrine of legal precedent, it is necessary to examine the concept as it has pertained to court cases throughout history. One of the best examples of court precedent is Roe v. Wade, a monumental case argued before the Supreme Court that had massive implications for all jurisdictions within the country.
In this specific case, which was argued in the early 1970s, a pregnant woman attempted to challenge the constitutionality of the abortion laws within the state of Texas. The woman believed the Texas abortion laws to be too restrictive, and to be in direct violation of her constitutional rights.
At the culmination of the case, the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal for any jurisdiction in the nation to outlaw abortion within its boundaries. In doing so, the Supreme Court, being the highest court in the nation, set a legal precedent to which other courts were bound to adhere; instead of following the laws set forth in their own constitutions, which, at that time, may have outlawed abortion, the lower courts were thus forced to examine the precedent set by the Supreme Court when making future decisions on this issue.
Here, it is important to note that the precedent was made binding since it was made by the Supreme Court of the United States; thus, all lower courts were required to follow it. Additionally, this case is a prime example of how a legal precedent can be used to overwrite the existing validity of a specific law; although Texas law specified a certain action was illegal, the Supreme Court decided otherwise, thus invalidating the code within the states.
Of course, not all precedent-setting cases are as monumental as Roe v. Wade, as many others have arisen that have made only minor changes to the legal setting in both individual states and across the country. This individual case does show, however, how the idea of precedent can alter the course of the legal landscape based on the decision of a single court.
How Texas Law Has Been Affected by Court Precedent
Since the decision in Roe v. Wade was made by the Supreme Court, it had an impact on the laws of each state within the nation. That being said, there have been numerous cases tried inside of the borders of Texas that have established legal precedent that persist to this day.
One such case, In re: Billy Frederick Allen, involved the original incarceration of Billy Frederick Allen, a Texas man who was sent to prison for allegedly committing two murders in 1983. After serving 26 years, Allen’s conviction was eventually overturned; a court found significant problems with the representation of his trial attorneys, as well as with witness testimony.
Upon release, Allen demanded that the state compensate him for the time he wrongfully spent in prison. The state denied his response, however, citing the fact that former inmates who have been compensated on such grounds have had to prove their innocence beforehand, a task Allen had not completed. Thus, the state argued, since his conviction was overturned, yet his innocence was not proven, he should not be eligible for wrongful compensation.
The case was then sent to the Texas Supreme Court. Ultimately, in a precedent-setting decision, Texas’ highest court ordered the state to pay Allen more than $2 million for the time he was required to spend in prison, and asserted that the rulings of the lower court should effectively establish his innocence in regards to the possibility of recovering compensation. This, in turn, may be used as a precedent in the future for courts faced with the issue of providing compensation for the wrongfully incarcerated who may not have been able to prove innocence, but who were freed nonetheless.
(Note that this is an exceptionally powerful precedent; even with the reliability of DNA evidence, many wrongfully convicted inmates are unable to acquire such evidence or don’t have the right to use it, thus preventing them from proving innocence. Due to the effects of this case, however, these inmates may now be eligible to receive compensation upon exoneration, even in the absence of DNA or other innocence-proving evidence).
How Does Precedent Affect My Case?
After examination of the doctrine of precedent, as well as historic examples, one final question may remain: how does a party to a lawsuit know if legal precedent affects his or her case?
Most importantly, the final decision in a case is placed in the hands of the court, which may examine previous rulings made by higher or lower courts. Of course, without a previous knowledge of case law, the individual may not be certain if and when a precedent will apply in his or her situation. This, subsequently, highlights the importance of seeking the help of an experienced trial attorney, who has a wide grasp of the law, both in Texas and across the nation. An adept attorney can ensure that the court examines legal precedent before making a ruling, or, if necessary, argue that the court itself should establish a new legal precedent in favor of the attorney’s client.
Understanding the court-defined precedents pertaining to your personal injury case is important as these precedents may conflict with the written law and may potentially affect the outcome of your case. The experienced attorneys at Tate Law Offices, P.C., have not only exhaustively studied Texas state and national laws, but our personal injury attorneys also stay privy to current and past court rulings and maintain a high level of understanding of the court defined precedents, which may be the difference in your personal injury case. If you’ve been injured in an accident, contact Tate Law Offices, P.C., today for a free case review.