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Precedent and Doctrine in a Complicated World

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2017

Stanford University
Emory University
Steven Callander is Herbert Hoover Professor of Public and Private Management, Professor of Political Economy, Graduate School of Business, Stanford University (
Tom S. Clark is Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science, Emory University (


Courts resolve individual disputes and create principles of law to justify their decisions and guide the resolution of future cases. Those tasks present informational challenges that affect the whole judicial process. Judges must simultaneously learn about (1) the particular facts and legal implications of any dispute; (2) discover the doctrine that appropriately resolves the dispute; and (3) attempt to articulate those rules in the context of a single case so that future courts may reason from past cases. We propose a model of judicial learning and decision making in which there is a complicated relationship between facts and legal outcomes. The model has implications for many of the important questions in the judicial process, including the dynamics of common law development, the path-dependent nature of the law, and optimal case selection by supervisory courts.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2017 

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We thank Deborah Beim, Chuck Cameron, Jeff Staton, and seminar participants at Penn State, Princeton, UNSW, Stanford GSB, the Public Choice Conference, the Law and Economics Theory Conference, and the referees and editor of this journal, for helpful suggestions and comments.


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