Precedent and Democracy

“Long-standing” precedent is generally regarded as more authoritative than one of recent vintage. But there is reason to question that assumption, too. The more ancient a rule, the more likely it is that the reasons that made it sensible or good (whatever one’s criteria for the goodness of legal rules!) at the time it crystallized or was laid down no longer hold true. In the extreme case, we are left with the situation that Oliver Wendell Holmes famously decried in “The Path of the Law,” 10 Harv. L. Rev. 457 (1897):

[i]t is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past.

So which sort of precedent deserves greater deference ― old or new? One consideration that tends to be missing from the debates about the authoritativeness of precedent ― even though it is a popular argument in the broader debate about the authoritativeness and legitimacy of “judge-made” (or, to borrow a less loaded term from Lon Fuller, “adjudicative”) law ― is legislative acquiescence.

It is often said that adjudicative law is democratically legitimate because, even though the courts in whose decisions it is set out are not in a meaningful sense democratic, legislatures could change the rules of adjudicative law that they do not like. Their failure to act is regarded as a sign of consent to the rules set out by courts, a democratic confirmation, albeit a tacit one, of the suitability of these rules for the community. Now, the acquiescence thesis does not strike me as entirely plausible, because the mass of case law is such that legislatures seem to me not very likely to be aware of all of its developments, still less to have the opportunity to respond to them in a timely fashion. But there is at least some truth to it, even if not enough to make it the conclusive argument for the legitimacy of adjudicative law its many proponents think it.

If we accept the acquiescence thesis, it would seem that long-standing precedents do have more authority than recent ones. The older a precedent, the more plausible the claim that the legislature has acquiesced to it.  The longer a precedent has been around, and especially the more subsequent judicial decisions have relied on it (admittedly, not necessarily a perfectly correlated fact), the more likely it seems that the legislature will become aware of it. People who stand to be affected by it and who are unhappy about the situation will, presumably, at least try to interest the legislature in their plight. And, given enough time, the legislature might respond.

But now, consider a somewhat stronger version of the acquiescence thesis. This stronger version holds that legislatures do not merely acquiesce to the rules of adjudicative law, but actually, albeit again implicitly, delegate rule-making responsibilities to courts, in more or less the same way  as they delegate such responsibilities to the executive branch of government. Again, I do not find this an entirely persuasive claim; I’m not sure that legislative silence on a certain point can really be taken as an invitation for the courts to deal with it rather than a merely lack of attention or even a deliberate decision not to regulate. Still, again, the delegation thesis is at least sometimes true. Legislatures do enact very general, even vague, statutes which they expect the courts to elaborate into more detailed regulatory schemes. And perhaps legislatures have in fact a more general expectation that if a problem arises with the law, the courts will deal with it ― it is hard to tell.

But if, or to the extent, that the delegation thesis is true, the courts should be quite proactive in responding to changing social conditions. They should then also be more suspicious of, rather than more deferential to, older precedents. The reasons that justified the precedent may have disappeared with the changes in society, the growth of our knowledge (scientific, economic, etc.), or even the development of other areas of the law.

Note, by the way, that the acquiescence and the delegation thesis are actually very close. The latter is only a mildly stronger version of the former. Indeed the delegation thesis depends on the acquiescence thesis for whatever normative validity it might have. If the legislature is not actually in a position to review and either consent to or revise adjudicative law, then it seems quite wrong for it to delegate legislative power to courts. (Though it might still be wrong for it do it even if the acquiescence thesis holds ― a point for a separate post, perhaps.) The difference between acquiescence and delegation seems to be only a matter of perspective: does the legislature consider the work of courts beforehand or retrospectively? In fact, to the extent the legislature does consider adjudicative law at all, it seems plausible that it does both, looking at what courts have done on an issue in the past and at what they might do in the future.

And yet, when it comes to the effect of time on authority of a precedent, the acquiescence and the delegation thesis seem to suggest opposite conclusions. I am not sure what to make of all this.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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