The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation. Its decisions set precedents that all other courts then follow, and no lower court can ever supersede a Supreme Court decision. In fact, not even Congress or the president can change, reject or ignore a Supreme Court decision.
American law operates under the doctrine of stare decisis, which means that prior decisions should be maintained -- even if the current court would otherwise rule differently -- and that lower courts must abide by the prior decisions of higher courts. The idea is based on a belief that government needs to be relatively stable and predictable.
This means that overturning a Supreme Court decision is very difficult. There are two ways it can happen:
- States can amend the Constitution itself. This requires approval by three-quarters of the state legislatures -- no easy feat. However, it has happened several times.
- The Supreme Court can overrule itself. This happens when a different case involving the same constitutional issues as an earlier case is reviewed by the court and seen in a new light, typically because of changing social and political situations. The longer the amount of time between the cases, the more likely this is to occur (partly due to stare decisis).
It isn't easy to do, but we've compiled a list of 10 Supreme Court cases that were later overturned. Many of them left a permanent mark on American history.
Lochner v. New York (1905) and Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923)
The Court decided the Lochner case in 1905, ruling that a New York State law limiting the number of hours a baker could work to 60 per week was unconstitutional. In a 5-4 decision, they declared that the law removed a person's right to enter freely into contracts, violating the 14th Amendment. The specific clause being violated states, "any State [shall not] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."
The Court heard the Adkins case in 1923. It regarded a Washington, D.C., law that set a minimum wage for female workers. It was overturned on similar grounds as the Lochner case.
Lochner set a major precedent that severely limited federal and state laws regulating working hours and wages. In fact, the period following the case is known as "The Lochner Era." However, the Adkins case was a key point in the women's rights movement in the U.S., which for decades debated absolute equality for women versus favoring only special protections and regulations for them.
The Lochner Era ended in 1937 when the Court decided West Coast Hotel v. Parrish. The matter involved a law very similar to the Adkins minimum wage law, but in this case, the Court decided that the 14th Amendment did not explicitly guarantee freedom of contract, and that such freedom could be limited by reasonable laws designed to protect workers' health and safety.
Chisholm v. Georgia (1793)
Chisholm v. Georgia was one of the very first significant Supreme Court decisions. The details aren't that exciting, but the decision had a major impact on the development of the U.S. and the relationship between federal and state law. The first amendment added to the Constitution after the Bill of Rights was passed by the states due to this decision.
Alexander Chisholm sued Georgia for money owed by the state for Revolutionary War supplies delivered by Robert Farquhar (Chisholm was the executor of Farquhar's estate). The state declined to even respond to the lawsuit, claiming that as a sovereign state (an autonomous political entity) it couldn't be sued by an individual citizen. The Court ruled that the Constitution assigned the power to determine disputes between citizens and states to federal courts.
It only took one year for the states to overrule the decision with the 11th Amendment, which states, in full, "The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State." The concept of "11th Amendment immunity" has since become a major cornerstone of U.S. law, coming into play when individuals have legal disagreements with a state government.
Adler v. Board of Education (1952)
In the 1950s, the "Red Scare" that accompanied McCarthyism resulted in laws that forced public officials to confirm their loyalty to the U.S. and deny any affiliation with the Communist party. One law enacted in New York State allowed schools to fire teachers who belonged to "subversive organizations." The state teacher's union told the teachers to refuse to answer, since the question itself violated another state law. Those teachers were all fired.
The union then sued the state board of education. Math teacher Irving Adler's name is associated with the case because it appeared first on court documents. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1952 that a law firing teachers who were members of subversive organizations was neither vague nor in violation of freedom of speech or due process.
In the early 1960s, with the same archaic laws on the books in New York State, professor Harry Keyishian found himself employed by a private university in the process of merging with a state university. He refused to take the loyalty oath and was dismissed. In the case of Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, the Supreme Court ruled that the state law was too vague to be constitutional (you can't receive your guaranteed due process under the law if you can't understand it), and that it was also an unconstitutional suppression of free speech and academic freedom.
The teachers who had been fired in the 50s sued for their jobs, and won.
Bowers v. Hardwick (1986)
In this 1986 case, the Supreme Court upheld a Georgia anti-sodomy law that forbade oral or anal sex between consenting adults -- regardless of the sexual orientation of either party. Through unusual circumstances, Michael Hardwick was seen engaging in oral sex with another man in his own bedroom by a police officer, and was arrested. Although the state declined to prosecute, the American Civil Liberties Union took up the case to test the constitutionality of anti-sodomy laws, and the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.
Homophobia clearly marked the Court's decision to uphold the law. The majority declared that homosexual sodomy was traditionally considered an abominable and illegal practice, specifically ruling that the Constitution didn't provide any inherent right to practice homosexual activity. Although the law in question covered both heterosexual and homosexual sodomy, the majority made it clear that the homosexual nature of the act was the key issue.
In 2003, the Supreme Court decided the case of Lawrence v. Texas by rejecting Texas's anti-sodomy law, essentially declaring that the Bowers decision was incorrect. Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion stated, "Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent. Bowers v. Hardwick should be and now is overruled." The dissent also specifically noted that the court was going against stare decisis by overturning Bowers.
Pace v. Alabama (1883)
The facts of this 1883 case are simple, and the Supreme Court's decision abhorrent to any modern person. Tony Pace was a black man living in Alabama, dating a white woman. Unfortunately, Alabama's anti-miscegenation laws forbade sexual relations or marriage between blacks and whites. Lower courts' logical contortions to justify the law were remarkable. For example, Pace and his white girlfriend were charged with adultery, since they were found living together without being married. However, state law made it illegal for them to get married. Alabama's Supreme Court decided that the law was not discriminatory because it applied equally to both blacks and whites. That is, it was illegal for a black person to marry a white person, but it was equally illegal for a white person to marry a black person. The case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which determined that protecting the institution of marriage was a valid interest for the state, and that the threat of interracial relationships would cause serious harm to "white marriages." Therefore, the law couldn't be ruled unconstitutional.
What's truly sad is that the case wasn't overturned until 1967, and that several lower courts issued rulings based on the same blatantly racist principles in place more than 80 years prior. In Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court finally ruled unanimously that such laws had no legal standing and were merely state-sponsored racism. They overthrew a Virginia law against interracial marriage and rendered all other such laws invalid.
Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce (1990)
Michigan's campaign finance laws initially prevented corporations from contributing to political campaigns or purchasing political advertising out of the company's general fund. The Chamber of Commerce felt the law - the Michigan Campaign Finance Act -- was an unconstitutional violation of their free speech and sued. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court declared that the law was narrowly constructed and served a compelling government interest: the reduction of corruption induced by corporations funding politicians favorable to their interests. Therefore, it didn't violate the Constitution. This ruling -- Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce -- opened the door for potent state and federal campaign finance reform laws.
In 2010, the Supreme Court heard the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and overturned the Austin decision. The 5-4 decision essentially drew two conclusions: Money equals speech, and corporations have the same right to free speech as individuals. Therefore, corporate political spending can't be illegal. The concurring opinions (opinions agreeing with the ruling, but adding additional details) were careful to consider the role of stare decisis and why it was important to overturn the ruling despite legal precedent. The dissenting opinion was pointed in observing the ruling's "rejection of the common sense of the American people … few outside the majority of this Court would have thought [American democracy's] flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics."
The Citizens United decision also overturned parts McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, a 2003 Supreme Court decision that upheld the McCain-Feingold Act, which introduced federal campaign finance reforms.
Oregon v. Mitchell (1970)
In 1970, the state of Oregon sued U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell in response to a federal law that made states reduce their voting age to 18. Oregon's voting age was 21, and the state felt it was unconstitutional to be forced to lower it. The Court's 5-4 decision ruled in Oregon's favor, giving the state (and therefore other states) the right to set their own election age laws.
This created a somewhat confusing legal patchwork, since the federal government could still mandate the age limits for federal elections, which it set at 18. In states that used an age limit of 21, separate voter registries for state and federal elections were required. In cases where both state and federal elections occurred at the same time, some voters would have been able to vote on only some portions of the ballot.
The confusion was sorted out by the 26th Amendment, adopted in 1971. The amendment set the national voting age to 18 for all elections, and was passed by 38 states in a matter of months - the fastest constitutional amendment ever adopted. It's interesting to note that the amendment forbids states (or anyone else) from taking away voting rights from anyone 18 or older. It doesn't prevent states from granting voting rights to anyone below age 18.
Wolf v. Colorado (1949)
The Fourth Amendment protects U.S. citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials. In 1949, Dr. Julius Wolf was convicted of performing illegal abortions, but he claimed the evidence against him had been seized illegally, without a proper search warrant or probable cause. One of his former patients reported that she had gone to him for an abortion, and police entered his office without a warrant and seized an appointment book. The women in the book also reported that Wolf had performed abortions, and this evidence was used to convict him. When the case made it to the Supreme Court, it ruled 6-3 against Wolf. The heart of the matter was the federal exclusion rule, which discouraged improper search and seizure by ruling that all evidence collected illegally wasn't admissible in court. Wolf had run afoul of a state law, and the court decided that the exclusion rule didn't apply to states. The majority opinion felt that there were other, less restrictive methods to discourage illegal searches, and that neither the Fourth or 14th Amendments necessitated the exclusion rule.
Mapp v. Ohio was decided just 12 years later, in 1961. In that case, authorities searched DollRee Mapp's house for a fugitive -- with no proof of a proper warrant. Mapp reported that they waved a piece of paper at her that she couldn't identify as a warrant, and no actual warrant was ever produced. Police found a cache of pornography that violated Ohio's obscenity laws, and the woman was convicted of obscenity based on that evidence. The intervening 12 years had shown that the "other methods" of discouraging illegal search and seizure weren't working, so the Court reversed itself within a surprisingly short period of time.
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
Dred Scott v. Sandford is one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history. It was a key part of the political turmoil of the decades leading to the Civil War, although the decision was ironically motivated in part by a desire to halt unrest over slavery. Quite simply, the 6-3 decision handed down in 1857 declared that black people were inferior to whites, weren't and couldn't be U.S. citizens, had no right to file federal lawsuits, and were property that couldn't be taken from their owners without due process. Furthermore, western territories could no longer ban slavery, and slaves brought into supposedly free territories were not, in fact, freed.
Scott was a slave whose owner had moved frequently as a result of his position in the U.S. Army, living in free territories at times. Scott attempted to sue for freedom based on that fact. He lost, but the case wound its way through various appeals for years. Scott was owned by the executor of his former owner's estate, a man named John Sanford (the Supreme Court spelled his name incorrectly in their documents).
The 13th and14th Amendments overturned the Dred Scott decision, but could only be enacted after several years of bloody Civil War. The 13th Amendment simply bans slavery in the U.S. The 14th amendment covers a lot of ground, but the relevant portion states, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
In the aftermath of the Civil War and the 13th and 14th Amendments, southern states passed laws attempting to create disadvantages for blacks, restrict their rights and keep them separate from whites. Homer Plessy had one-eighth black ancestry, and his light skin allowed him to frequently ride in the white sections of trains, even though Louisiana had laws establishing separate facilities for blacks. He had been selected by the Citizens' Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law specifically for that purpose -- the intent was to carry the case to the Supreme Court in hopes that it would strike down the law. Plessy sat in the white section of a train, announced his ancestry, and then refused to move to the black section. He was arrested.
The argument against Louisiana's "separate facilities" laws (and those of other states) was that they violated the 14th Amendment, the separation indicating an institutional belief that blacks were inferior to whites. The Supreme Court didn't believe that the laws were a constitutional violation, ruling against Plessy in a 7-1 ruling (Justice David Josiah Brewer's daughter had recently died, so he wasn't in Washington to hear the case).
This ruling entrenched the legal doctrine of "separate but equal" in U.S. law for more than 50 years. While in Plessy's specific case, the black train was in fact of equal quality to the white train, this was the exception. During the "separate but equal" years, black facilities were underfunded, poorly maintained and generally anything but equal.
In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy, finding that "separate but equal" was invalid and banning racial segregation. Southern states didn't give in easily, and the threat of military force was necessary in some instances to enforce desegregation.
Last editorial update on Jun 28, 2018 10:01:40 am.
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- Cornell University Law School. "Keyishian v. Board of Regents." (Oct. 5, 2010) http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0385_0589_ZS.html
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- Cornell University Law School. "Oregon v. Mitchell." (Oct. 5, 2010) http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0400_0112_ZS.html
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