Political Science Now

Precedent and Doctrine in a Complicated World

Precedent and Doctrine in a Complicated World

by Steven Callander, Stanford University & Tom S. Clark, Emory University

Courts resolve individual disputes and create principles of law to justify their decisions and guide the resolution of future cases. Those tasks present informational challenges that affect the whole judicial process. Judges must simultaneously learn about (1) the particular facts and legal implications of any dispute; (2) discover the doctrine that appropriately resolves the dispute; and (3) attempt to articulate those rules in the context of a single case so that future courts may reason from past cases. We propose a model of judicial learning and decision making in which there is a complicated relationship between facts and legal outcomes. The model has implications for many of the important questions in the judicial process, including the dynamics of common law development, the path-dependent nature of the law, and optimal case selection by supervisory courts.

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American Political Science Association / Volume 111 / Issue 1 / February 2017, pp. 184-203