Andrew Jackson, in his Veto Message, explains his reasons for refusing to renew the charter of the Second Bank of the United States; he further delves into more fundamental issues of understanding the U. S. Constitution. Jackson essentially agrees with Thomas Jefferson’s position on constitutional interpretation and states that “the Congress, the Executive, and the Court must each for itself be guided by its own opinion of the Constitution.” Every public officer swears an oath to support the Constitution, as he understands it, not as it is understood by others. This duty applies to Congress and the President when bills are brought before them for approval—and it applies to the courts when they decide on the cases brought before them. No branch’s opinion should have binding authority over the decisions of the other branches in their respective spheres; rather, the opinions of other branches should have “only such influence as the force of their reasoning may deserve.”
Furthermore, Jackson believes that “mere precedent is a dangerous source of authority,” since various precedents might conflict—and precedent alone should not be a reason for deciding on the constitutionality of an act except in cases where “the acquiescence of the people and the States can be considered as well settled.”
Abraham Lincoln, in his speech on the Dred Scott decision, does consider the judicial authority on Constitutional questions to be ultimate, when those questions are fully settled. Once the questions are settled, the judicial decisions “should control, not only the particular cases decided, but the general policy of the country,” subject only to the amendment process.
For Lincoln, a judicial decision has the twofold purpose of determining absolutely the case decided and indicating to the public how similar cases will be decided when they arise—i.e., to create authoritative precedents. Some precedents are more authoritative than others, according to the circumstances under which they were formed. Lincoln gives several conditions which would make a judicial decision an authoritative precedent: unanimous concurrence of the judges, lack of any apparent partisan bias, accordance with legal public expectation or the steady practice of the departments throughout our history, lack of reliance on assumed historical facts which are not really true. Furthermore, if the decision has been wanting in any of the above, but has been before the court more than once and has been repeatedly reaffirmed over time, it can still be a binding precedent.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, weekly columnist for GrasstopsUSA.com, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov also publishes his articles on Helium.com and Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at email@example.com.