Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Ginsburg have repeatedly decried what they view as their colleagues’ inadequate respect for precedent during the Supreme Court’s October Term 2018. Justice Breyer last month wisely cautioned the Court about the dangers of reversing legal course “only because five Members of a later Court” decide that an earlier ruling was incorrect. But Justice Kagan’s vitriolic dissent last Friday in Knick v. Township of Scott was far wide of the mark when it lambasted the Court’s decision to overrule the oft-criticized Williamson County Planning v. Hamilton Bank decision. None of the factors cited as reasons to respect precedent apply to Williamson County. Justice Kagan’s harsh language may have been designed to induce cautious justices to be more reluctant to consider overruling other precedents, but it had little relevance to the case before the Court.

How Much Should Precedent Matter?

The Supreme Court has long accepted the doctrine of stare decisis, which counsels courts in most instances to adhere to a prior decision, despite its errors. The doctrine reflects a judgment that in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right.