Five times the Supreme Court reversed a precedent
The leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion this week that would overturn the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade has raised fresh questions about when, if ever, a court ruling can safely be considered “settled law.”
One bedrock of American law is the doctrine of stare decisis, the principle that courts are generally bound to abide by past rulings. Yet the Supreme Court has also left itself wiggle room, repeatedly noting that adherence to precedent is not an “inexorable command.”
The current clash over the fate of Roe is the not the first time the court has wrestled with the tension between deference to past rulings and flexibility to maneuver.
Here are five big historical examples of when the Supreme Court has reversed itself.
Plessy v Ferguson (overruled by Brown v. Board of Education)
The Supreme Court ruled in Plessy V. Ferguson (1896) that race-based segregation was legal, a decision that was not overturned for more than 50 years.
The Plessy decision got its name from Homer A. Plessy, who challenged a Louisiana law that created separate rail cars for Blacks and whites, arguing it violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
In the case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of segregation, so long as it was separate but equal.
In 1951, 13 parents, with Oliver Brown named as a plaintiff, sued Topeka’s Board of Education in Kansas in a direct challenge to the precedent.
The court in 1954 ultimately overturned Plessy V. Ferguson, establishing that race-based segregation was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren in the unanimous opinion.
“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone,” Warren continued.
Lochner v. New York (overruled by West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish)
The state of New York passed the Bakeshop Act in 1896 in an effort to support labor rights.
The law established limits on workday schedules, including a policy barring an employee in a bake shop from working more than 60 hours in a week.
Joseph Lochner, the owner of a bakery shop, was charged with violating the law, and he took a case challenging it all the way to the Supreme Court.
In Lochner v. New York (1905), the court ruled the law interfered with employer-employee contracts and was government overreach, as well as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause.
Until 1937, the rule was the law of the land. Courts adhered to the precedent, striking down similar labor cases.
West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937) brought labor rights into a fresh spotlight.
The case concerned a new minimum wage hike from the Washington government’s Industrial Welfare Committee and Supervisor of Women in Industry. They raised the minimum wage to $14.50 for each work week of 48 hours 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 Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, ruled it was constitutional to establish a minimum wage law.
The ruling ended the Lochner era and the court’s long avoidance of regulating business.
Bowers v. Hardwick (overruled by Lawrence v. Texas)
Michael Hardwick was arrested by a police officer in Georgia in 1982 for sodomy and sued, challenging the state’s law and naming then-Attorney General Michael J. Bowers in ths suit.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that there was no constitutional protection of sodomy and states could outlaw homosexual intercourse.
In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the court reversed the decision entirely. In a 6-3 ruling, justices ruled for John Lawrence, who had been convicted under a sodomy law. The court said making it a crime for two men to have sex violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.
The decision would also pave the way toward the landmark 2015 ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S.
Wolf v. Colorado (overruled 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 challenged the evidence used against him, arguing it was seized illegally and in violation of his Fourth Amendment right.
The court, however, said illegally obtained evidence did not have to be excluded from court by default.
Years later, Mapp v. Ohio (1961) saw another stunning reversal from Supreme Court precedent.
In that case, justices ruled in favor of Dollree Mapp, who was convicted of possessing obscene materials during an illegal police search of her home for a separate investigation into a missing fugitive.
Mapp had challenged the case and evidence against her based on a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. The justices concurred with her argument.
“The ignoble shortcut to conviction left open to the State tends to destroy the entire system of constitutional restraints on which the liberties of the people rest,” wrote Justice Tom Clark in the majority opinion.
“Having once recognized that the right to privacy embodied in the Fourth Amendment is enforceable against the States, and that the right to be secure against rude invasions of privacy by state officers is, therefore, constitutional in origin, we can no longer permit that right to remain an empty promise,” Clark added.
Pace v. Alabama (overruled by Loving v. Virginia)
Pace V. Alabama (1882) concerned Tony Pace, an African American man, and Mary Cox, a white woman, who were charged with adultery and fornication in Alabama under a law that severely punished interracial relationships.
Pace took a legal challenge to the Supreme Court, arguing it violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Justices ruled that Alabama’s law was not in conflict with the Constitution, despite more severe punishments levied against African-Americans in violation.
In Loving v. Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court reversed that ruling in another case — nearly 100 years later.
Mildred Jeter, a Black woman, and Richard Loving, a White man, were arrested in Virginia and sentenced to a year in jail for violating a law banning inter-racial marriages.
Loving challenged the statute, arguing 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.
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