NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Overruling and the Instability of Law

Nicola Gennaioli, Andrei Shleifer

NBER Working Paper No. 12913
Issued in February 2007
NBER Program(s):   LE

We investigate the evolution of common law under overruling, a system of precedent change in which appellate courts replace existing legal rules with new ones. We use a legal realist model, in which judges change the law to reflect their own preferences or attitudes, but changing the law is costly to them. The model's predictions are consistent with the empirical evidence on the overruling behavior of the U.S. Supreme Court and appellate courts. We find that overruling leads to unstable legal rules that rarely converge to efficiency. The selection of disputes for litigation does not change this conclusion. Our findings provide a rationale for the value of precedent, as well as for the general preference of appellate courts for distinguishing rather than overruling as a law-making strategy.

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Published: Gennaioli, Nicola & Shleifer, Andrei, 2007. "Overruling and the instability of law," Journal of Comparative Economics, Elsevier, vol. 35(2), pages 309-328, June.

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