Most Commentators and Courts Agree that State Courts are Only Bound by the Supreme Court when Interpreting the Constitution and Federal Statutes
State courts sometimes decide cases which require them to interpret the Constitution of the United States and federal statutes. When analyzing the Constitution or federal statutes, must states follow precedent from the federal courts? That is, are federal court decisions binding precedent on the state courts?
Most courts (and law professors) agree that the answer is “No.” According to most courts, experts, and a few Supreme Court justices, only the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution and federal law binds state courts. As a result, most state courts do not consider themselves bound by “lower federal courts”, including the Circuit Courts of Appeal and the United States District Courts.
Most State Courts Consider Lower Federal Court Decisions Persuasive, But Not Binding Precedent
Almost every state court considers precedent from the federal courts persuasive, but not binding. When interpreting federal law or the Constitution, most state courts will likely defer to a federal court decision that is on-point. But state court judges do not believe they are required to follow precedent from federal courts, other than precedent from the Supreme Court.
A few state courts have gone further and stated that federal decisions are binding. But some of these cases are older. Also, sometimes state court judges within the same state appear to have different views as to whether they are bound to follow precedent from the federal courts when interpreting federal law and the Constitution.
All state courts agree that they are obligated to follow precedent from the Supreme Court. As a general rule then, decisions by federal District Courts and Circuit Courts are not considered binding precedent, however, decisions by the Supreme Court are binding precedent on state courts.
The Supreme Court Has Not Ruled on this Issue
Although the Supreme Court has not ruled on whether state courts are obligated to follow precedent from lower federal courts, Supreme Court justices have opined that states may disregard precedent from the federal courts. Justice Clarence Thomas in a 1993 concurring opinion stated that decisions by lower federal courts do not bind state courts.
Justice Thomas, Concurring
The Supremacy Clause demands that state law yield to federal law, but neither federal supremacy nor any other principle of federal law requires that a state court’s interpretation of federal law give way to a (lower) federal court’s interpretation. In our federal system, a state trial court’s interpretation of federal law is no less authoritative than that of the federal court of appeals in whose circuit the trial court is located.