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Why Old Supreme Court Cases Never Die

October 17, 2017
By: Jared Dobbs

Old cases endure and outlast their initial controversy decades after they’ve been decided. That’s because courts rely on precedent—previous cases—when determining current cases. The Constitution is not interpreted in isolation, but in conversation with justices and courts of old. Precedent is refined, clarified, and occasionally overturned.

This is especially true for cases that reach the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). As the highest court in America, all lower courts are bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has been involved in 52 victories at the Supreme Court; one of the most cited cases out of those is Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (1995). ADF provided funding to appeal that case.

At issue was a University of Virginia (UVA) student group that published a university magazine with Christian views. The Court agreed that denying generally available student funds to this magazine because of its Christian views constituted viewpoint discrimination, and thus the university violated the First Amendment.

Westlaw, a prominent legal resource and database for attorneys, records 8,164 overall citations of Rosenberger—mostly from case citations, law review articles, and appellate court documents. Let’s break those down.

Case citations: 976

This is the number of case decisions that reference the Rosenberger ruling. Each of those courts decided either that Rosenberger should dictate a case outcome or that Rosenberger did not determine the outcome.

Citations in law review articles: 2,604

A law review article like “Justice O’Connor’s Nonendorsement Principle: A Commitment to Political Equality Achieved by Fidelity to Common Law Attentiveness to Human Experience” may not be your idea of summer reading at the beach. But for the lawyers and judges, such secondary sources are go-to resources when researching legal theory.

Citations in appellate court documents: 2,910

Court documents, especially at the appellate level, provide an opportunity for attorneys to explain why prior cases should guide the court’s ruling. In a brief we filed at the Supreme Court for this year’s Trinity Lutheran case, ADF attorneys argued that the Rosenberger decision supported Trinity Lutheran’s claims. Trinity Lutheran’s preschool was denied funds for a playground resurfacing grant solely because of the preschool’s affiliation with the church. Just as UVA had denied Ron Rosenberger neutrally available funds for his university magazine, so the State of Missouri had denied Trinity Lutheran neutrally available funds for the grant. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority in Trinity Lutheran, agreed with this line of reasoning.

SCOTUS decisions like Rosenberger and Trinity Lutheran powerfully influence future cases. Even dissenting opinions and overturned rulings, while not binding, still provide helpful commentary that could influence the court’s views in future cases.

Old SCOTUS cases never die.

Keep up-to-date on all the latest ADF cases before the Supreme Court, and learn more about some of the precedent-setting cases in which we’ve played a role. 
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Alliance Defending Freedom

Alliance Defending Freedom

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Alliance Defending Freedom advocates for your right to freely live out your faith


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