What does it mean to overturn a Supreme Court decision?
August 10, 2005 9:52 AM   Subscribe

What does it really mean to "overturn" a Supreme Court decision?

I'm specifically asking about Roe v. Wade, but that's not important. What I want to know is if there's some sort of formal "overturning process" by which the Court renounces or repeals in some way an earlier decision. Or is it more a matter of, to use this case as an example, new legislation being passed outlawing abortion, and the Court deciding not to intervene?
posted by MrMoonPie to Law & Government (9 answers total)
It means to overrule or reverse a prior decision, by means of a new decision.
posted by amro at 9:59 AM on August 10, 2005

There's no formal overturning process beyond the usual one of hearing a case. In most cases courts, including the Supreme Court, follow the principle of stare decisis, that is, they make their decisions consistent with previous decisions of the Court (even if the Court which made the original decision was made up of different people, and the current Justices wouldn't necessarily reach the same decision without the benefit of stare decisis.)

To "overturn" a decision basically involves a new court case which would be decided one way under stare decisis, and the Court ignoring the previous decision and ruling a different way. So yes, overturning Roe v. Wade would mean that a law was passed banning abortion somewhere, that law being challenged in court, the case making its way to the Supreme Court, and the Court holding the law to be constitutional, thus ignoring the stare decisis from Roe v. Wade.

For an actual example, check out Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:00 AM on August 10, 2005

I should say, this happens when a new case comes up, and the decision in the new case goes against the decision in the old case, the old case is overturned. Thus, if a new abortion case comes before the Supreme Court and the decision made in that case is that women are not entitled to get abortions (totally oversimplifying here), then Roe v. Wade will have been overturned.
posted by amro at 10:01 AM on August 10, 2005

The 2003 ruling in Lawrence v Texas barred states from banning sodomy, overturning (or reversing or superceding) a 1986 high court decision that allowed states to ban sodomy. The new opinion just takes precedence.
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:05 AM on August 10, 2005

Y'all are going to make me look real smart. Thanks!
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:07 AM on August 10, 2005

FWIW, O'Conner and her quorum looked at stare decisis in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 and reexamined the abortion question. Here's a summary of what they said on the question in the context of Roe:

"(h) A comparison between Roe and two decisional lines of comparable significance - the line identified with Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45, and the line that began with Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 - confirms the result reached here. Those lines were overruled - by, respectively, West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379, and Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 - on the basis of facts, or an understanding of facts, changed from those which furnished the claimed justifications for the earlier constitutional resolutions. The overruling decisions were comprehensible to the Nation, and defensible, as the Court's responses to changed circumstances. In contrast, because neither the factual underpinnings of Roe's central holding nor this Court's understanding of it has changed (and because no other indication of weakened precedent has been shown), the Court could not pretend to be reexamining Roe with any justification beyond a present doctrinal disposition to come out differently from the Roe Court. That is an inadequate basis for overruling a prior case. Pp. 861-864.

"(i) Overruling Roe's central holding would not only reach an unjustifiable result under stare decisis principles, but would seriously weaken the Court's capacity to exercise the judicial power and to function as the Supreme Court of a Nation dedicated to the rule of law. Where the Court acts to resolve the sort of unique, intensely divisive controversy reflected in Roe, its decision has a dimension not present in normal cases, and is entitled to rare precedential force to counter the inevitable efforts to overturn it and to thwart its implementation. Only the most convincing justification under accepted standards of precedent could suffice to demonstrate that a later decision overruling the first was anything but a surrender to political pressure and an unjustified repudiation of the principle on which the Court staked its authority in the first instance. Moreover, the country's loss of confidence in the Judiciary would be underscored by condemnation for the Court's failure to keep faith with those who support the decision at a cost to themselves. A decision to overrule Roe's essential holding under the existing circumstances would address error, if error there was, at the cost of both profound and unnecessary damage to the Court's legitimacy and to the Nation's commitment to the rule of law. Pp. 864-869."

It's difficult to imagine a more halfhearted defense of Roe. I don't think it would be difficult for Scalia to write his way out of this if he can get Roberts' vote.
posted by onlyconnect at 11:15 AM on August 10, 2005

Sometimes overturning is explicit, as in the court opinion says something like "To the effect that [old case] is inconsistent with this opinion, it is superceded/overturned/no longer good law/etc...". More often, the court will effectively overturn a prior ruling, but doesn't explicitly state such. Often, judges writing in dissent (if any) will point out exactly which cases are (in their opinion) being overturned and accuse the majority of not owning up completely to what they are doing.
posted by thewittyname at 11:58 AM on August 10, 2005

Although I think your question has been answered, I think it is useful to point out that in addition to a prior decision being overturned by the Supreme Court in a subsequent opinion, the legislature can also overturn a Supreme Court opinion. If the prior decision was based on an interpretation of a statute (such as the recent Brand X decision), Congress can easily pass a new statute that is contrary to the Supreme Court's decision. Even if the prior decision is based on constitutional law, Congress and the states can amend the Constitution to achieve the goal they want. Of course, this isn't easy to do. However, on the state level, this is exactly the tactic used in those states (such as Massachusetts and Hawaii) where the highest court in the state has declared that banning homosexuals from marrying each other is unconstitutional under the state's constitution.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 2:55 PM on August 10, 2005

Think of it a little less about overturning a specific USSC decision and a little more about endorsing a new interpretation of the law or constitution that happens to almost wholly invalidate the prior decision. It's not like they go back over the facts of the old case. They're considering a new case entirely -- under existing case law, influenced by that prior decision -- and they're considering fresh arguments by the plaintiff and defendant (one of whom, of course, may be the US government, or in rare cases, both) as well as friend of the court briefs, and the makeup of the court is usually different by the time something this serious happens, with different judicial backgrounds and philosophies in play.

Miranda is one such famous ruling that, it's thought by many scholars, has been almost wholly eviscerated by later decisions. They've never come along and "overturned" Miranda; they've just endorsed more and more encroachment on what it means, exactly, to have a proper legal defense and so forth, and there have been several endorsements of a creeping "good faith" loophole for the police. So you end up with case law that still uses Miranda as a prior cite, but considerably weakened.

Consider one of the most famous examples of the Court overturning "itself" -- the Plesssy v. Ferguson decision, which covered (and endorsed) "separate but equal" accomodation on public transportation, and Brown v. Board of Education, which invalidated separate but equal in public schools. The facts of the cases were quite different, but the result was an overturning, even though the facts of Plessy were not in any way reconsidered. Brown, by its nature and timing, provided precedent for ending segregation in many other avenues.
posted by dhartung at 1:40 AM on August 11, 2005

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