Rivers v. Roadway Express, Inc., 511 U.S. 298, 15 (1994)

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312

RIVERS v. ROADWAY EXPRESS, INC.

Opinion of the Court

every law student," United States v. Security Industrial Bank, 459 U. S. 70, 79 (1982), and this case illustrates the second half of that principle as well as the first. Even though applicable Sixth Circuit precedents were otherwise when this dispute arose, the District Court properly applied Patterson to this case. See Harper v. Virginia Dept. of Taxation, 509 U. S. 86, 97 (1993) ("When this Court applies a rule of federal law to the parties before it, that rule is the controlling interpretation of federal law and must be given full retroactive effect in all cases still open on direct review and as to all events, regardless of whether such events predate or postdate our announcement of the rule"). See also Kuhn v. Fairmont Coal Co., 215 U. S. 349, 372 (1910) ("Judicial decisions have had retrospective operation for near a thousand years") (Holmes, J., dissenting). The essence of judicial decisionmaking—applying general rules to particular situations—necessarily involves some peril to individual expectations because it is often difficult to predict the precise application of a general rule until it has been distilled in the crucible of litigation. See L. Fuller, Morality of Law 56 (1964) ("No system of law—whether it be judge-made or legislatively enacted—can be so perfectly drafted as to leave no room for dispute").

Patterson did not overrule any prior decision of this Court; rather, it held and therefore established that the prior decisions of the Courts of Appeals which read 1981 to cover discriminatory contract termination were incorrect. They were not wrong according to some abstract standard of interpretive validity, but by the rules that necessarily govern our hierarchical federal court system. Cf. Brown v. Allen, 344 U. S. 443, 540 (1953) (Jackson, J., concurring in result). It is this Court's responsibility to say what a statute means, and once the Court has spoken, it is the duty of other courts to respect that understanding of the governing rule of law. A judicial construction of a statute is an authoritative state-

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