Volume 108

Vertical Stare Decisis and Three-Judge District Courts

by Michael T. Morley

Three-judge federal district courts have jurisdiction over many issues central to our democratic system, including constitutional challenges to congressional and legislative districts, as well as to certain federal campaign-finance statutes. They are similarly responsible for enforcing key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Litigants often have the right to appeal their rulings directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because of this unusual appellate process, courts and commentators disagree on whether such three-judge district court panels are bound by circuit precedent or instead are free to adjudicate these critical issues constrained only by U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The applicability of court of appeals precedent in three-judge district courts implicates larger questions about the justifications for, and scope of, vertical stare decisis within the federal judiciary. The Appellate Jurisdiction Theory of vertical stare decisis posits that, when adjudicating a case, the only precedent a court is required to apply is that of tribunals with appellate jurisdiction over that particular matter. The Structural Theory, in contrast, contends that a lower court must presumptively follow the precedent of other courts that are superior to it within the judicial hierarchy.

A careful analysis of nearly a century’s worth of federal laws establishing three-judge trial courts and allowing certain cases to be appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court confirms that Congress does not legislate against the backdrop of the Appellate Jurisdiction Theory. To the contrary, a Hybrid Theory combining both traditional approaches provides the best descriptive ft for past and present jurisdictional statutes and unconventional appellate procedures. The Hybrid Theory specifies that a court presumptively must follow the precedent of other tribunals that either may have appellate jurisdiction over its rulings in a particular case or are superior to it within the constitutional and statutory structure of the judiciary. Applying this approach, a three-judge district court must follow its regional court of appeals’s precedent, even though its rulings are not subject to review there, because that court occupies a superior position within the federal judicial hierarchy. This approach is most consistent with the structure of three-judge district courts, Congress’s purposes in creating them, practical considerations, and the traditional rationales underlying stare decisis.

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