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What is a “Precedent”?

When parties present a legal dispute to a judge, the judge considers the evidence each party presents in support of their respective positions. However, the judge also must consider the law applicable to the case at issue, often in the form of “precedent.” Understanding how precedent can impact the judge’s decision is crucial to your chances of reaching the desired outcome in your case. An experienced civil litigation attorney from Evans Kingsbury, LLP, can evaluate your case based on precedent and explain how it may affect the judge’s ruling. Contact our offices today at (707) 596-6090 and learn more about the implications of precedent for your civil case.

Defining Precedent

A judge must apply the applicable laws to the facts of your case to reach a decision. Relevant laws might consist of statutes or laws that the legislature passes and the Governor signs into law and case law, which are published cases that other courts previously have decided. These existing court cases act as “precedent” for judges to rely on in reaching decisions in their cases. In other words, judges use precedent, or already established principles of law from earlier cases, to decide new cases that involve similar facts and legal issues.

State trial courts typically do not publish their decisions or opinions. The decisions of other state trial courts are not binding. Therefore, precedent comes from cases that state or federal appellate courts and the California or U.S. Supreme Court have decided in the past.

Factors that Influence the Effect of Precedent on Your Case

Interpretation of state law and the state constitution by a state appellate or the California Supreme Court is binding on the trial court. Interpretation of federal law and the U.S. Constitution by a federal appellate court or the U.S. Supreme Court is also binding on lower courts. However, a trial court may give more or less consideration to precedent based on various factors. A primary factor is whether the precedent is “on point” or whether the case involves the same or similar set of facts as the case the judge is currently considering. If the existing case is identical or very similar to yours, then the judge will likely rely on that precedent in deciding your case.

Depending upon the facts before the higher court that issued the decision that is precedent in your case, that decision may act as mandatory or binding precedent or merely be persuasive authority for the judge in your case. If the law has changed since the higher court made the decision, your trial judge will also consider how changes in the law affect the earlier decision and how it applies in your case.

Furthermore, the court may consider a decision of another court that is not in your state, but that addresses a law that is the same as or similar to the law at issue in your case. Decisions by other jurisdictions are not binding in state trial courts, but judges may find the reasoning in those decisions persuasive.

    Some precedent may not affect the judge’s decision in your case. These cases might include:
  • • Decisions that involved facts that are quite different from those in your case;
  • • Much older cases that other court decisions since have contradicted or that interpreted laws that have changed since the decisions were published; or
  • • Cases from courts in jurisdictions where the law is substantially different than the law at issue in your case.

Judges also may overlook or distinguish precedent if they believe it was wrongfully decided or some factor exists in the previous case that does not exist in the current case that they are in the process of deciding.

Contact the Offices of Evans Kingsbury LLP for the Help You Need

We offer legal representation to clients in civil litigation, family law cases, and civil appeals. Whether you need a California civil litigation attorney, a civil appeals lawyer, or a family law attorney, Evans Kingsbury LLP can help. Call our offices today at (707) 596-6090 or visit us online to learn more about the legal services that we can provide you.

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