What Does Distinguish Mean in Law?

Instructor: Tisha Collins Batis

Tisha is a licensed real estate agent in Texas. She holds bachelor's in legal studies and a master's degree in criminal justice.

This lesson will define the term ''distinguish'' as it pertains to the legal world. Upon completion, the reader should have a firm grasp of this term, along with how it applies to the legal world specifically.

What Does Distinguish Mean in Law?

In the legal world, there is a term, stare decisis. It means to let the decision stay. In other words, it means that a court will recognize the decision in a case and use it for cases similar to it that come later on. Many people will recognize these as cases that establish precedent. For example, many know that the landmark case of Roe v. Wade involved women's rights regarding their own bodies and legalizing abortions. However, not every case involving abortions that has gone to court since then has been decided exactly as Roe v. Wade was decided. This is because courts have the ability to distinguish between one case and another.

When courts distinguish one case from another, they are pointing out that there is a difference between the cases. One case will be an older case that established precedent in a particular issue. The new case, which may be distinguished from the other, will be similar to the first case. However, there will be some factor in the case that will lead the court to decide differently on that case despite the precedent set in the first case.

When the court distinguishes one case from another case, the court will usually decide the newer case on a narrower ruling. The outcome of the new case cannot be inconsistent with the precedent case. Basically, in order to distinguish the new case, the two cases have to be similar but not exactly alike.

Distinguishing Two Cases: An Example

American law was originally based on English common law. Such was the case of Regina v. Hicklin, which helped determine initial laws in America regarding obscene material. The Regina case gave birth to a test which was used to determine whether particular material was obscene or not. Laws were later enacted in America that prohibited the mailing of material that was deemed to be obscene.

In 1957, the case of Roth v. United States was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Samuel Roth had been convicted under a federal statute due to materials he had mailed that were deemed to be obscene. He ran a business in New York City and mailed out advertisements and a book for that business. Roth appealed his conviction and it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

There were differences between Roth and Regina. While Regina took place in England, Roth took place in America. The one thing that was cited in Roth regarding Regina was the obscenity test created by Regina. However, Roth claimed that his fundamental right to free speech was violated by the federal law he was convicted under.

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