The role of stare decisis in constitutional law is a ubiquitous one. It shows up almost everywhere, leaving controversy and chaos in its wake. Yet despite the prominence of stare decisis, its jurisprudence remains perpetually unsettled. The Supreme Court identifies several factors that affect the strength of prior precedent. However, these factors are not consistently defined or even wholly agreed upon. How can something as crucial as the law of stare decisis have such scattered precedents? Something more, something deeper, is going on here. A hint of this deeper issue comes out in contentious cases like Payne v. Tennessee, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, where the Justices speak to or acknowledge democratic disagreement and its effect on the Supreme Court’s legitimacy. But to understand these cases as the Court simply confronting its own legitimacy, while partly correct, is much too narrow. A closer inspection of these opinions reveals more than just a simple debate about democratic disagreement. It is a debate about what role democratic disagreement should play in stare decisis and, therefore, in the Supreme Court as an institution. Thus, it is no wonder that stare decisis, as a doctrine, is unsettled. Stare decisis has become the battleground for America’s oldest contest: departmentalism or judicial supremacy.
This Note argues that stare decisis is much better understood when one analyzes the doctrine in connection with the broader discussions surrounding departmentalism and judicial supremacy. In doing so, this Note develops in three Parts. Part I examines the necessary background of stare decisis and its relationship to interbranch conflict. Part II surveys the three cases of Payne, Casey, and Dobbs, paying particular attention to how the Justices in these cases are, in truth, guided by their views of departmentalism or judicial supremacy. Part III further highlights the relationship between disputes over stare decisis and departmentalism versus judicial supremacy and provides the reader with a potential theoretical framework to explicitly incorporate the concept of departmentalism within precedent. Departmentalism and judicial supremacy will forever be negotiated. Ultimately, in stare decisis, a home has been found for this great American debate.