Five times the Supreme Court overturned a precedent
The leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion this week that would overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision has raised new questions about when, if at all, a court decision can be safely considered as an “established law”.
One of the foundations of US law is the doctrine of stare decisis, the principle that courts are generally bound to abide by prior decisions. Yet the Supreme Court also left itself some leeway, noting repeatedly that following precedent is not an “inexorable command.”
The current clash over Roe’s fate is not the first time the court has grappled with the tension between respecting past rulings and flexibility to maneuver.
Here are five great historical examples of cases where the Supreme Court reversed itself.
Plessy v Ferguson (reversed by Brown v. Board of Education)
The Supreme Court ruled in Plessy V. Ferguson (1896) that segregation on the basis of race was legal, a decision which was not overturned for over 50 years.
The Plessy decision is named after Homer A. Plessy, who challenged a Louisiana law that created separate wagons for blacks and whites, arguing that it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
In this case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of segregation, as long as it was separate but equal.
In 1951, 13 parents, with Oliver Brown named as plaintiff, sued the Topeka Board of Education in Kansas in a direct challenge to precedent.
In 1954, the court finally overturned Plessy V. Ferguson, finding segregation based on race to be unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
“The segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect on colored children,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the unanimous opinion.
“Separating them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a sense of inferiority about their status in the community that can affect their hearts and minds in ways that will never be undone,” Warren continued.
Lochner v. New York (reversed by West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish)
New York State passed the Bakeshop Act in 1896 in an effort to support workers’ rights.
The law established limits on working hours, including a policy prohibiting a bakery employee from working more than 60 hours per week.
Joseph Lochner, the owner of a bakery, was charged with breaking the law and he sued all the way to the Supreme Court.
In Lochner v. New York (1905), the court ruled that the law interfered with employer–employee contracts and was an excess of government, as well as a violation of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.
Until 1937, the rule was the law of the land. The courts have adhered to precedent, invalidating similar labor cases.
West Coast Hotel Co. c. Parrish (1937) put labor rights in a new light.
The case involved a new minimum wage hike imposed by the Industrial Welfare Committee and the Supervisor of Women in Industry in the Washington government. They raised the minimum wage to $14.50 for every 48 hour work week for female workers.
Elsie Parrish, who worked for West Coast Hotel Company, sued the company for not giving her the new basic minimum wage standard.
The Supreme Court, considering whether a minimum wage law violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, ruled that it was constitutional to enact a minimum wage law.
The decision ended the Lochner era and the court’s long avoidance of regulating cases.
Bowers v Hardwick (reversed by Lawrence v Texas)
Michael Hardwick was arrested by a police officer in Georgia in 1982 for sodomy and prosecuted, challenging state law and naming then-Attorney General Michael J. Bowers in that lawsuit.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that there was no constitutional protection for sodomy and that states could prohibit same-sex activity.
In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the court reversed the decision entirely. In a 6-3 decision, the judges ruled for John Lawrence, who had been convicted under a buggery law. The court said making it a felony for two men to have sex violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The decision would also pave the way for the landmark 2015 decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, who legalized same-sex marriage in the United States.
Wolf v. Colorado (reversed by Mapp v. Ohio)
In the 1949 case Wolf vs Colorado, Julius A. Wolf, Charles H. Fulton and Betty Fulton were charged with conspiracy to perform an abortion.
Wolf disputed the evidence used against him, arguing that it was seized unlawfully and in violation of his Fourth Amendment right.
The court, however, said illegally obtained evidence should not be excluded from court by default.
Years later, Mapp v. Ohio (1961) saw another stunning reversal of Supreme Court precedent.
In that case, judges ruled in favor of Dollree Mapp, who was found guilty of possessing obscene material during an unlawful police search of her home for a separate investigation into a missing fugitive.
Mapp had challenged the case and the evidence against her on the basis of a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. The judges agreed with his argument.
“The despicable shortcut to conviction left open to the state tends to destroy the whole system of constitutional restraints upon which the liberties of the people rest,” Justice Tom Clark wrote in the majority opinion.
“Having once recognized that the right to privacy enshrined in the Fourth Amendment is enforceable against states, and that the right to be protected from gross invasions of privacy by state agents is, therefore, constitutional in origin, we can no longer allow this right to remain an empty promise,” Clark added.
Pace v. Alabama (reversed by Loving v. Virginia)
Pace V. Alabama (1882) concerned Tony Pace, an African-American man, and Mary Cox, a white woman, charged with adultery and fornication in Alabama under a law that severely punished interracial intercourse.
Pace filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court, arguing that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The judges ruled that Alabama’s law did not conflict with the Constitution, despite harsher penalties for African Americans in violation.
In Loving v. Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court overturned that decision in another case – almost 100 years later.
Mildred Jeter, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were arrested in Virginia and sentenced to one year in prison for violating a law banning interracial marriages.
Loving challenged the law, arguing that it was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Supreme Court agreed.
“Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry or not marry a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the state,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote. in the majority opinion.