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Key Excerpt: Feinstein and Sotomayor on Evaluating Precedent

CQ Transcriptions

FEINSTEIN: And what we're talking about here is following precedent, so let me ask you in a difficult area of the law a question.

The Supreme Court has decided on more than seven occasions that the law cannot put a woman's health at risk. It said it in Roe in '73; in Danforth in '76; in Planned Parenthood in '83; in Thornburgh in '86; in Casey in '92; in Carhart in 2000; and in Ayotte in 2006.

With both Justices Roberts and Alito on the court, however, this rule seems to have changed, because, in 2007, in Carhart II, the court essentially removed this basic constitutional right from women.

Now, here's my question: When there are multiple precedents and a question arises, are all the previous decisions discarded, or should the court re-examine all the cases on point?

SOTOMAYOR: It's somewhat difficult to answer that question...


SOTOMAYOR: ... because, before the court in any one case is this particular factual situation. And so how the court's precedent apply to that unique factual situation -- because often what comes before the court is something that's different than its prior decision, not always, but often.

In the Carhart case, the court looked to its precedents. And as I understood that case, it was deciding a different question, which was whether there were other means, safer means, and equally effective means for a woman to exercise her right than the procedure at issue in that case.

That was, I don't believe, a rejection of its prior precedents. Its prior precedents are still the precedents of the court. The health and welfare of a woman must be -- must be compelling consideration.

FEINSTEIN: So you believe that the health of the woman still exists...

SOTOMAYOR: It is a part...


SOTOMAYOR: You mentioned many cases. It has been a part of the court's jurisprudence and a part of its precedents. Those precedents must be given deference in any situation that arises before the court....

FEINSTEIN: In Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC, he said that Chief Justice Roberts' opinion, quote, "effectively overruled a 2003 decision without saying so," end quote, and said this kind of, quote, "faux judicial restraint," end quote, was really, quote, "judicial obfuscation," end quote.

Here's the question. When the court decides to overrule a previous decision, is it important that it do so outright and in a way that is clear to everyone?

The doctrine of stare decisis, which means stand by a decision, stand by a prior decision, has a basic premise and that basic premise is that there is a value in society to predictability, consistency, fairness, evenhandedness in the law.

And the society has an important expectation that judges won't change the law based on personal whim or not, but that they will be guided by a humility they should show in the thinking of prior judges who have considered weighty questions and determined, as best as they could, given the tools they had at the time, to establish precedent.

There are circumstances in which a court should reexamine precedent and perhaps change its direction or perhaps reject it, but that should be done very, very cautiously. And I keep emphasizing the "verys" because the presumption is in favor of deference to precedent.

The question then becomes what are the factors you use to change it and then courts have looked at a variety of different factors, applying each in a balance and determining where that balance falls at a particular moment.

It is important to recognize, however, that the development of the law is step-by-step, case-by-case, and there are some situations in which there is a principled way to distinguish precedent from application to a new situation.

No, I do not believe a judge should act in an unprincipled way, but I recognize that both the doctrine of stare decisis starts from a presumption that deference should be given to precedence and that the development of the law is case-by-case. It's always a very fine balance.

Read the entire exchange between Sen. Feinstein and Judge Sotomayor. Read more on past court rulings.

By  |  July 14, 2009; 12:47 PM ET
Categories:  Hearings , Supreme Court , Topics: Past Court Rulings  
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