Do you remember learning in school about how a bill becomes law? If you’re of a certain age, you might even remember a Schoolhouse Rock song about it. But did you ever hear about how an argument becomes law? You probably didn’t, because it’s not a subject that’s covered in schools—at least, not in so many words. So, it might surprise you to learn that courts turn arguments into law, just like legislatures turn bills into law. They don’t call it that, of course, but that’s really what they’re doing. Here’s how it works:
Somebody files a lawsuit
The first step in turning an argument into law is for a plaintiff to file a lawsuit, in which he will claim that somebody else wronged him in some way. Whatever the basis of that claim, the plaintiff will not only provide evidence to prove that the facts are as he claims, but he will also make an argument about what the law is—or should be—and how that entitles him to win his case. The defendant will then dispute that the plaintiff should win, either because the facts are not as the plaintiff claims, or because the law is not what the plaintiff says, or both.
A trial court rules
The second step will be the judgment of the trial court. The trial court will either accept or reject the plaintiff’s claim. In doing so, the court will consider both the facts, as revealed by the evidence, and the law, as revealed by statutes or prior cases. If the trial court’s judgment is not appealed, then law has already been made, because in future cases, other courts can look to the court’s judgment in this case for guidance in how to handle similar disputes.
A higher court rules
The final step is the ruling of a court of appeals or court of last resort. If either party appeals the trial court’s judgment, then the higher court to which it is appealed will have the opportunity to rule on the legal questions raised in the trial court. When it does so, its conclusions will have a wider effect on the law than the trial court’s did, because those conclusions will be the law for every lower court within the geographic area within which the higher court has authority. That could be a part of state, in states with more than one court of appeals; an entire state, in states with only one court of appeals or cases decided by a state court of last resort; within a region encompassing multiple states, in the case of a federal court of appeals; or nationwide, in a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
At this point, you may think I’m tricking you. Are court rulings really law? Yes, because of the concept of stare decisis. Stare decisis is a Latin phrase that means “let the decision stand.” As a legal doctrine, it means that prior court decisions should be followed when the facts of a new case are indistinguishable from the facts of the prior case. When lawyers file lawsuits or write briefs explaining their legal arguments, they don’t only cite the statutes that began as bills in a legislature. They also cite prior decisions of the same court or a higher court. When they do that, they’re referring to the laws that started off as a party’s argument in a prior case.