Melissa Murray


Much ink has been spilled on the Roberts Court’s approach to stare decisis and precedent. Such commentary is hardly surprising. In just the last five years, the Court has overruled extant precedents on issues that range from abortion and jury convictions to property rights and public unions. It has also substantially narrowed and limited existing precedents, curbing the reach of earlier decisions in ways that disrupt and distort the jurisprudential landscape.

Some view the Court’s uneven approach to precedent as ideologically determined. As these critics maintain, the Court adheres to precedents that are consistent with the views of its six-member conservative supermajority while jettisoning or narrowing those precedents that do not accord with those ideological priors.

This Essay takes a different tack. Specifically, it argues for reading the Roberts Court’s approach to precedent and stare decisis through the lens of remedy. That is, the Court’s treatment of precedent might be understood, whether in whole or in part, as animated by a desire to rectify an earlier error or injustice. To be sure, this impulse is not merely corrective—the Court’s approach to stare decisis goes beyond correcting what it views as jurisprudential errors. Instead, the Court’s approach seems marked by an interest in identifying and righting a past wrong. Recent cases like Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, and Ramos v. Louisiana accord with this interpretive frame. In these cases, the Court departed from—or overruled—earlier decisions in part to remedy past racial injustices. Likewise, in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, the Court dismissed the extant precedent upholding the limited use of race-conscious admissions policies on the view that “[e]liminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.”

Viewing the Roberts Court’s approach to stare decisis through a remedial lens is clarifying. It helps us to understand—and better anticipate—the Court’s treatment of earlier decisions. Understanding the Court’s approach to stare decisis as a form of remedy renders more legible the Court’s conception of legal injuries—and, in particular, racialized injuries. As this Essay explains, the Roberts Court’s remedial approach to stare decisis is often deployed to correct what a majority of the Court views as a racial injustice. In some cases, like Ramos v. Louisiana, this remedial impulse focuses on correcting historic injustices wrought by white supremacy and historic acts of racism.

But critically, a remedial lens may also render visible a reparative logic that unites a series of recent cases involving religious freedom, gun rights, and affirmative action. Although these cases focus on distinct doctrinal questions, they share a unifying impulse: the Court’s apparent desire to remedy injuries done to Christian conservatives, working-class whites, and, more generally, white people. In this regard, viewing the Court’s decisions through a remedial lens may provide a more coherent account—across legal doctrines—of the Roberts Court’s understanding of discrimination, the injuries it produces, and its apparent victims.

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