The Supreme Court's Overruling of Constitutional Preedent: An Overview
CRS Report for Congress
The Supreme Court’s Overruling of Constitutional
Precedent: An Overview
November 29, 2005
American Law Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
The Supreme Court’s Overruling of Constitutional
Precedent: An Overview
As a general rule, the Supreme Court adheres to precedent, citing the doctrine
of stare decisis (“to stand by a decision”). The general rule of stare decisis is not an
absolute rule, however, and the Court recognizes the need on occasion to correct
what are perceived as erroneous decisions or to adapt decisions to changed
circumstances. In deciding whether to overrule precedent the Court takes a variety
of approaches and applies a number of different standards, many of them quite
general and flexible in application. As a result, the law of stare decisis in
constitutional decision making can be considered amorphous and manipulable, and
it is difficult to predict when the Court will rely on stare decisis and when it will
depart from it. This report cites instances in which the Court has overruled precedent
as well as instances in which it has declined to do so, and sets forth the rationales that
the Court has employed.
The Supreme Court’s Overruling of
Constitutional Precedent: An Overview
The Supreme Court has overruled 228 of its own decisions over the years, and1
the most controversial of these decisions involved constitutional interpretation.
How the Supreme Court explains its reversals of direction in constitutional2
interpretation is the subject of this report.
As a general rule, the Supreme Court adheres to precedent, citing the doctrine
of stare decisis (“to stand by a decision”). This means that, when the Court has laid
down a principle in deciding a case, ordinarily it will apply that same principle in
future cases with substantially similar facts.3 The general rule of stare decisis is not
an absolute rule, however; the Court recognizes the need on occasion to correct what
are perceived as erroneous decisions or to adapt to changed circumstances. In
deciding whether to overrule precedent the Court takes a variety of approaches and
applies a number of different standards, many of them quite general and flexible in
application. As a result, the law of stare decisis in constitutional decision making
has been called amorphous and manipulable, and has been criticized as incoherent.4
1 “Supreme Court Decisions Overruled by Subsequent Decisions,” in CONSTITUTION OF THE
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, ANALYSIS AND INTERPRETATION, 2387-2399 (CRS 2002; 2004
Supplement) (listing 225 overruled decisions through the end of the 2003 Term; the Court
overruled three more decisions during its 2004 Term).
2 Different issues confront lower courts, which lack authority to overrule Supreme Court
precedent and are obligated to follow it.
3 An alternative approach is to distinguish or narrow a precedent. A less charitable view is
that “[t]he alternative to disavowing precedent is manipulating it.” Frank H. Easterbrook,
Stability and Reliability in Judicial Decisions, 73 CORNELL L. REV. 422, 424 (1988).
4 “[I]t is quite clear to any observer that the Court has no coherent or stable conception of
the appropriate role of precedent in constitutional adjudication,” and this fact creates the
impression that “the doctrine is invoked only as a mask hiding other considerations.” Henry
Paul Monaghan, Stare Decisis and Constitutional Adjudication, 88 COLUM. L. REV. 723,
753, 743 (1988). “We do not have – never can have – a comprehensive theory of
precedent.” Frank H. Easterbrook, Stability and Reliability in Judicial Decisions, 73
CORNELL L. REV. 422, 423 (1988).
Adherence to precedent is a fundamental principle of jurisprudence that
promotes certainty in the law and uniformity in the treatment of litigants, and thereby
The obligation to follow precedent begins with necessity, and a contrary
necessity marks its outer limit. With Cardozo, we recognize that no judicial
system could do society’s work if it eyed each issue afresh in every case that
raised it. Indeed, the very concept of the rule of law underlying our own
Constitution requires such continuity over time that a respect for precedent is, by6
Stare decisis is not a constitutional command; as Justice Frankfurter wrote,
“stare decisis is a principle of policy and not a mechanical formula of adherence to7
the latest decision.” The doctrine reflects a policy judgment that “in most matters
it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled8
right.” A safety valve is deemed necessary, however. In some instances it becomes
important to the Court to correct an earlier interpretation that it views as erroneous
or no longer viable. Although most Justices agree that error correction should be the
exception to the rule, defining the circumstances under which a decision should be
overruled is a difficult task. An inconsistent approach by the Court in resolving the
tension between the opposing goals of continuity and error correction can itself create
uncertainty and unpredictability.
The Court often explains that it is less reluctant to overrule a decision that
involves constitutional interpretation rather than interpretation of a statute.
[I]n cases involving the Federal Constitution, where correction through
legislative action is practically impossible, this Court has often overruled its
earlier decisions. The Court bows to the lessons of experience and the force of
better reasoning, recognizing that the process of trial and error, so fruitful in the9
physical sciences, is appropriate also in the judicial function.
5 “To avoid an arbitrary discretion in the courts, it is indispensable that they should be bound
down by strict rules and precedents.” The Federalist No. 78, at 502-03 (Alexander
Hamilton) (Robert Scigliano ed., 2001).
6 Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 854 (1992) (citing BENJAMIN CARDOZO, THE
NATURE OF THE JUDICIAL PROCESS 149 (1921)). Put other ways, “to change the concept of
the law every other month makes a mockery of its majesty and a yo-yo of its practice."
Gweszcz Appeal, 206 Pa. Super. 397, 213 A.2d 155, 159 (1965) (dissenting opinion of
Judge Watkins); frequent overruling of precedent can “bring adjudications of this tribunal
into the same class as a restricted railroad ticket, good for this day and train only.” Smith
v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 669 (1944) (Justice Roberts dissenting).
7 Helvering v. Hallock, 309 U.S. 109, 119 (1940).
8 Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co., 285 U.S. 393, 406 (Justice Brandeis dissenting).
9 Burnet, 285 U.S. at 407 (Justice Brandeis dissenting). Stare decisis “has only a limited
application in the field of constitutional law.” St. Joseph Stock Yards Co. v. United States,
298 U.S. 38, 94 (Justices Stone and Cardozo concurring). “Our willingness to reconsider
our earlier decisions has been particularly true in constitutional cases, because in such cases
correction through legislative action is practically impossible.” Seminole Tribe of Fla. v.
Nonetheless, when justifying an overruling the Court usually looks for something in
addition to its belief that a case was wrongly decided. “Although adherence to
precedent is not rigidly required in constitutional cases, any departure from the
doctrine of stare decisis demands special justification.”10
“Special justification” can be one or more of several different considerations,
and how strong a justification the Court requires can vary with the importance of the
precedent as well as with the importance the Court attaches to overruling it. The
decision whether to adhere to a constitutional decision “is a complex and difficult
one . . . that must account for a variety of often competing considerations.”11 In
reexamining a constitutional precedent, the Court looks to “a series of prudential and
pragmatic considerations designed to test the consistency of overruling a prior
decision with the ideal of the rule of law, and to gauge the respective costs of
reaffirming and overruling a prior case.”12 The Court has looked to the following
general considerations in overruling precedent.
[We] may ask whether the rule has proven to be intolerable simply in defying
practical workability, Swift & Co. v. Wickham, 382 U.S. 111, 116 (1965);
whether the rule is subject to the kind of reliance that would lend a special
hardship to the consequences of overruling and add inequity to the cost of
repudiation, e.g., United States v. Title Ins. & Trust Co., 265 U.S. 472, 486
(1924); whether related principles of law have so far developed as to have left
the old rule no more than a remnant of abandoned doctrine, see Patterson v.
McLean Credit Union, 491 U.S. 164, 173-174 (1989); or whether facts have so
changed, or come to be seen so differently, as to have robbed the old rule of
significant application or justification, e.g., Burnet, supra, at 412 (Brandeis, J.13
All of these possibilities may be examined when the Court is asked to overrule
a decision at the heart of a major national controversy.14 In considering and rejecting
Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 63 (1996). The converse, of course, is that the Court “give[s] great
weight to stare decisis in the area of statutory construction [because] ‘Congress is free to
change this Court’s interpretation of its legislation.’. . . Congress, not this Court, has the
responsibility for revising its statutes.” Neal v. United States, 516 U.S. 295-96 (1996)
(quoting Illinois Brick Co. v. Illinois, 431 U.S. 720, 736 (1977)).
10 Arizona v. Rumsey, 467 U.S. 203, 212 (1984).
11 Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 573 (1993)
(concurring opinion of Justice Souter).
12 Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. at 854. References to Casey are to the opinion
of the Court, not to the plurality opinion of Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter, or to
13 Casey, 505 U.S. at 854-55.
14 It is not often that the Court “calls the contending sides of a national controversy to end
their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.” It has
a request that it overrule its landmark abortion decision, Roe v. Wade,15 the Court
looked to the following factors.
[W]e may inquire whether Roe’s central rule has been found unworkable,
whether the rule’s limitation on state power could be removed without serious
inequity to those who have relied upon it or significant damage to the stability
of the society governed by it; whether the law’s growth in the intervening years
has left Roe’s central rule a doctrinal anachronism discounted by society; and
whether Roe’s premises of fact have so far changed in the ensuing two decades
as to render its central holding somehow irrelevant or unjustifiable in dealing16
with the issue it addressed.
Finding none of these factors present, the Casey majority saw no basis for
overruling Roe. In their view, Roe had not proven unworkable; there was reliance of
a sort (“an entire generation has come of age free to assume Roe’s concept of liberty
in defining the capacity of women to act in society, and to make reproductive
decisions”);17 “no erosion of principle going to liberty or personal autonomy” had
undermined “Roe’s central holding”; because Roe’s holding was viewed as consistent
with other personal liberty decisions, reliance on Roe’s precedent was viewed as
unlikely to lead to erroneous decisions; and, although “time [had] overtaken some of
Roe’s factual assumptions,” no changed circumstances had undermined Roe’s central
holding.18 The Casey Court emphasized that “a decision to overrule should rest on
some special reason over and above the belief that a prior case was wrongly
A basic change in the law upon a ground no firmer than a change in our
membership invites the popular misconception that this institution is little
different from the two political branches of Government. No misconception
could do more lasting injury to this Court and to the system of law which it is our20
abiding mission to serve.
Societal changes were important – albeit somewhat different – considerations
in two major overruling decisions of the Twentieth Century, West Coast Hotel v.
done so “twice in our lifetime, in the decisions of Brown and Roe.” Planned Parenthood
v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 867 (1992).
15 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
16 505 U.S. at 855.
17 Reliance is more commonly associated with commercial interests. “Considerations in
favor of stare decisis are at their acme in cases involving property and contract rights, where
reliance interests are involved.” Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 828 (1991).
18 505 U.S. at 860-61.
19 505 U.S. at 864.
20 505 U.S. at 864 (quoting Mitchell v. W.T. Grant Co., 416 U.S. 600, 636 (1974) (Justice
Parrish (1937)21 and Brown v. Board of Education (1954).22 In West Coast Hotel,
the Court overruled its 1923 decision in Adkins v. Children’s Hospital,23 which had
invalidated a state minimum wage law for adult women. West Coast Hotel was not
a narrow ruling, but rather in effect reversed the whole line of Lochner decisions
premised on acceptance of laissez-faire economics and relying on employers’ liberty
of contract to restrict social welfare legislation.24 The nation’s experience during the
Great Depression had changed perceptions between Adkins and West Coast Hotel.
As the Court put it, reconsideration was “imperative” due in part to “the economic
conditions which have supervened, and in the light of which the reasonableness of
the exercise of the protective power of the state must be considered.”25 Although also
grounding its decision in due process doctrine and in correcting what it viewed as an
erroneous interpretation in Adkins, the Court took judicial notice of “the unparalleled
demands for relief which arose during the recent period of depression,” and
concluded that a state could legislate to prevent the exploitation of a class of workers
who were “relatively defenseless” and who might become dependent upon the
community for support.26
In Brown v. Board of Education, the Court arguably forced social change more
than it responded to it.27 The Court abandoned its interpretation of the Equal
Protection Clause as allowing “separate-but-equal” treatment of the races, and held
that racial segregation in the public schools was inherently unequal.28 The Court
justified its changed interpretation by changing its conclusion about the stigmatizing
effects of segregation. “Whatever may have been the extent of psychological
knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding [that racial segregation
stigmatizes minority children] is amply supported by modern authority. Any
language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.”29 The Court cited
21 300 U.S. 379 (1937).
22 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
23 261 U.S. 525 (1923).
24 The reference is to Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), in which the Court relied
on liberty of contract theory to invalidate a New York law restricting the hours of labor in
25 300 U.S. at 390.
26 300 U.S. at 399.
27 The Brown Court did not address, but necessarily rejected, South Carolina’s stare decisis
societal reliance argument that a whole social order rested on the separate-but-equal
interpretation. Brief for Appellees on Reargument at 59-60, Briggs v. Elliott, 347 U.S. 483
(1954). (Briggs was one of the cases consolidated with Brown.)
28 The separate-but-equal doctrine derived from Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896),
in which the Court upheld racial segregation in transportation. Plessy was overruled in 1956
when the Court summarily affirmed a decision applying Brown’s principles to
transportation. Gayle v. Browder, 352 U.S. 903 (1956).
29 347 U.S. at 494-95.
academic studies, rather than general societal acceptance or experience, for the
“modern authority” from which its “psychological knowledge” was derived.30
As the Casey Court synthesized Brown and West Coast Hotel, “[e]ach rested on
facts, or an understanding of facts, changed from those which furnished the claimed
justifications for the earlier constitutional resolutions.” Because “each case was
comprehensible as the Court’s response to facts that the country could understand,”
the decisions were also “defensible, not merely as the victories of one doctrinal
school over another by dint of numbers . . . , but as applications of constitutional
principle to facts as they had not been seen by the Court before.”31
A divisive social issue was also implicated in 2003 when the Court, overruling
a 1986 decision, struck down a state law that prohibited private, consensual,
homosexual sodomy. Lawrence v. Texas,32 unlike Brown and West Coast Hotel, did
not purport to rest on changed facts or a changed understanding of facts. Rather, the
Court in Lawrence asserted that the Court in Bowers v. Hardwick33 had misread its
own precedent and had too narrowly defined the liberty interest at stake. The Court
justified its departure from stare decisis by concluding that the “foundations” of
Bowers had been “eroded” by subsequent decisions,34 that the “weakened” precedent
of Bowers had been subjected to “substantial and continuing criticism,”35 and that
there had been “no individual or societal reliance . . . of the sort that could counsel
against overturning its holding.”36 Dissenting Justice Scalia challenged these
conclusions, and suggested that Roe “satisfies these conditions to at least the same
degree as Bowers.”37
30 347 U.S. at 494 n.11. The lower court in Brown, though bound by the Supreme Court’s
separate-but-equal doctrine, had made similar findings that segregation branded minority
children as inferior. Id. at n.10.
31 Casey, 505 U.S. at 863-64. The fact that Brown was a unanimous decision also
undermined the argument that one doctrinal school had triumphed over the other by “dint
of numbers” or by changed membership on the Court.
32 539 U.S. 558 (2003).
33 478 U.S. 186 (1986).
34 539 U.S. at 576 (relying principally on Casey for its description of a broad liberty interest
in defining one’s personal relationships, and on Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), which
struck down a Colorado provision that denied homosexuals protection under anti-
35 539 U.S. at 576.
36 539 U.S. at 577.
37 539 U.S. at 586. While agreeing that Romer had eroded the foundations of Bowers,
Justice Scalia asserted that Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997), had similarly
eroded the foundations of Roe and Casey. Roe and Casey, of course, had, like Bowers, been
subjected to “unrelenting criticism.” As for reliance, the Justice suggested that there had
been “overwhelming” societal reliance on Bowers that far exceeded the reliance that the
Casey Court found to have been placed on Roe. Id. at 588-91.
Other recent overruling decisions that received considerable public attention
barred application of the death penalty to mentally retarded persons and to juveniles.
In 1989 the Court had refused to hold that execution of a mentally retarded
individual,38 or of an individual who was 16 or 17 at the time of his offense,39
violated the Eighth Amendment; in 2002, however, the Court reversed its conclusion
about execution of the mentally retarded,40 and in 2005 it did so for juveniles.41
These decisions shed little light on general principles governing departures from
stare decisis, however, because they were controlled by the unique language of the
Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”42
Basically, the Court determined that, although execution of the mentally retarded or
of juveniles had not been “unusual” in 1989, it had become so by 2002 and 2005,
respect i v el y. 43
Often, especially if no major social issue such as abortion or racial segregation
is at issue, society’s understanding of the precedent is not implicated, and the Court
may change and narrow its focus. Other factors, such as reliance or workability, may
carry the day. For example, lack of workability was the principal reason cited by the
one Justice whose changed vote required the Court to reverse itself on a federalism
issue for the second time in less than a decade. Justice Blackmun, writing for a five-
to-four majority in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority,44 declared
that the test the Court had formulated nine years earlier for determining whether
Congress could impose the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the Fair
Labor Standards Act on state governments – insulating states when performing
“traditional governmental functions” – was not only a misinterpretation of the
Constitution, but had proved “unworkable.”45 Lower courts had struggled without
success to apply the test, the Court itself had disclaimed a “static, historical”
38 Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989).
39 Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989).
40 Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).
41 Roper v. Simmons, 125 S. Ct. 1183 (2005).
42 Recognition of evolving societal standards is found in some judicial constructs of
substantive due process as well as in the language of the Eighth Amendment. Compare,
e.g., Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100-01(1958) (plurality opinion) (the Eighth Amendment
“must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of
a maturing society)” with Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 172, 173 (1952) (due process
is violated by official conduct that “shocks the conscience”; states in their prosecutions must
“respect certain decencies of civilized conduct”).
43 The Court reached its 2005 conclusion about the juvenile death penalty in spite of the fact
that in 2002 it had contrasted the national consensus said to have developed against
executing the mentally retarded with what it then saw as a lack of consensus regarding
execution of juveniles. Atkins, 536 U.S. at 315 n.18.
44 469 U.S. 528 (1985). Garcia overruled National League of Cities v. Usery, 426 U.S. 833
(1976). Usery had overruled Maryland v. Wirtz, 392 U.S. 183 (1968).
45 469 U.S. at 531.
approach to defining “traditional” governmental functions,46 and the Court had
abandoned a somewhat analogous tax immunity distinction between governmental
and proprietary functions.47
The other side of the coin, of course, is that if a decision has proved workable
in practice (and if its theoretical underpinnings have not been eroded), Justices may
be unwilling to overrule it despite disagreement on the merits. For example, in
refusing to overrule its landmark decision in Miranda v. Arizona,48 the Court in
Dickerson v. United States49 pointed to the fact that Miranda warnings had become
“embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become
part of our national culture.”50 Chief Justice Rehnquist’s opinion for the Court stated
that “principles of stare decisis weigh heavily against overruling” Miranda
“[w]hether or not we would agree with Miranda’s reasoning and its resulting rule,
were we addressing the issue in the first instance.”51
Reliance interests can sometimes tip the scales against overruling. In declining
to overrule a 25-year-old precedent interpreting the Commerce Clause as prohibiting
a state from collecting use taxes on out-of-state mail order businesses that do not
have a physical presence within the state, the Court stated that the rule had
“engendered substantial reliance and has become part of the basic framework of a
Occasionally the Court overrules precedent with only minor emphasis on
“special circumstances” justifying departure from stare decisis. In Payne v.
Tennessee,53 for example, the Court overruled two relatively recent decisions54 that
had barred consideration of victim impact statements during capital sentencing. The
Payne Court asserted that departure from precedent is justified “when governing
46 469 U.S. at 539, citing Transportation Union v. Long Island R.R., 455 U.S. 678 (1982).
47 469 U.S. at 540-44.
48 384 U.S. 436 (1966). Miranda held that as a general rule statements by suspects in
custodial interrogation are admissible at trial only if police first warned the suspect of his
right to remain silent and to be represented by counsel.
49 530 U.S. 428 (2000).
50 530 U.S. at 443. The Court also noted that Miranda’s “doctrinal underpinnings” had not
been eroded. Id.
51 530 U.S. at 443.
52 Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, 504 U.S. 298, 317 (1992) (refusing to overrule National
Bellas Hess, Inc. v. Department of Revenue of Illinois, 386 U.S. 753 (1967), on Commerce
Clause grounds). The Court in Quill Corp. did overrule Bellas Hess’s alternative holding,
that imposition of use taxes violated the Due Process Clause, and thereby opened the
possibility that Congress, in exercise of its commerce power, could authorize state taxation
of mail order businesses. Id. at 318-19.
53 501 U.S. 808 (1991).
54 Booth v. Maryland, 482 U.S. 496 (1987); and South Carolina v. Gathers, 490 U.S. 805
decisions are unworkable or are badly reasoned.”55 The Court went on to distinguish
property and contract rights cases “where reliance interests are involved” from “cases
such as the present one involving procedural and evidentiary rules,” and pointed to
the fact that “Booth and Gathers were decided by the narrowest of margins, over
Making more of an effort to pay homage to stare decisis, the Court in Adarand
Constructors v. Pena57 asserted that correcting error can itself sometimes be a
“special circumstance” that justifies overruling precedent. That occasion arises,
Justice O’Connor asserted for the Court, when the precedent at issue was a departure
from “intrinsically sounder” and well-established principles – when the Court
“cannot adhere to our most recent decision without colliding with an accepted and
established doctrine.”58 The decision that Adarand overruled, Metro Broadcasting,
Inc. v. FCC,59 had held, in effect, that Congress had greater leeway than the states in
adopting remedial racial preferences; this interpretation, the Adarand Court asserted,
“undermined important principles . . . established in a line of cases dating back over
The theory that departure from well-established doctrine renders a precedent
subject to overruling was not new with Adarand. Rather, the Adarand opinion found
support in several earlier decisions said to rest on the same principle.
In United States v. Dixon, 509 U.S. 688 (1993), we overruled the case of Grady
v. Corbin, 495 U.S. 508 (1990), because Grady “lack[ed] constitutional roots”
and was “wholly inconsistent with earlier Supreme Court precedent.” Dixon,
supra, at 704, 712. In Solorio v. United States, 483 U.S. 435 (1987), we
overruled O’Callahan v. Parker, 395 U.S. 258 (1969), which had caused
“confusion” and had rejected “an unbroken line of decisions from 1866 to 1960.”
Solorio, supra, at 439-441, 450-451. And in Continental T. V., Inc. v. GTE
Sylvania Inc., 433 U.S. 36 (1977), we overruled United States v. Arnold, Schwinn
& Co., 388 U.S. 365 (1967), which was an abrupt and largely unexplained
55 501 U.S. at 827 (emphasis added).
56 501 U.S. at 828-29. Citing a single state court decision in which the judges disagreed on
how to interpret Booth, the Court also asserted that the decisions had “defied consistent
application by the lower courts.” Id. at 830. The blunt dissent by Justice Marshall asserted
that the only change in the four years since Booth was in “the personnel of this Court,” not
in the law or the facts. Id. at 844. Between Booth and Payne, Justice Kennedy had replaced
Justice Powell, author of the Booth opinion, and Justice Souter had replaced Justice
Brennan, who had voted in the majority in Booth and had written the Court’s opinion in
Gathers. Both of the new Justices joined the Payne majority.
57 515 U.S. 200 (1995).
58 515 U.S. at 231, 232.
59 497 U.S. 547 (1990).
60 515 U.S. at 231.
departure” from precedent, and of which “[t]he great weight of scholarly opinion61
ha[d] been critical.”
It may be, however, that Payne and Adarand put greater emphasis on the precedent’s
departure from well-established doctrine, and less emphasis any other justifications62
Both Dixon and Adarand overruled relatively recent decisions. As Justice
O’Connor pointed out in her concurring opinion in Adarand, a quick overruling of
a precedent that departed from its antecedents does not “depart from the fabric of the
law [but rather] restore[s] it,” and also minimizes the opportunity for reliance that63
could deter overruling.
Although the newness of a precedent is sometimes seen as reducing its
immunity from overruling, the oldness of a precedent does not always prevent its64
overruling. For example, the Court in Erie Railroad v. Tomkins overruled Swift v.
Tyson,65 a decision then almost 100 years old, on the basis that its recognition of a
federal common law was unconstitutional, and had led to undesirable results in
commercial activities. There are numerous other instances of the Court’s overruling66
of hoary precedent. Indeed, the older a precedent is, the more possibility there is
that its doctrinal underpinnings will have been eroded through developments in the67
Age of a precedent can provide the opportunity for its reinforcement as well as
for its erosion. A precedent “that has become integrated into the fabric of the law”
is more likely to have engendered reliance interests, and its overruling may even
61 515 U.S. at 232-33 (also citing Payne v. Tennessee and two other decisions).
62 The Dixon Court concluded that Grady “‘contradicted an unbroken line of decisions,’
contained ‘less than accurate’ historical analysis, and ha[d] produced ‘confusion.’” 509 U.S.
at 711. The Solorio decision emphasized the “confusion” and unworkablitly of
O’Callahan’s service-connection test as well as its rejection of the “unbroken line of
decisions.” See 483 U.S. at 448-50. The GTE Sylvania Court also relied on workability
problems, citing the struggles of lower federal courts to interpret and apply Schwinn. See
63 515 U.S. at 234.
64 304 U.S. 64 (1938).
65 41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 1 (1842).
66 E.g., Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians, 526 U.S. 172 (1999), overruling
in part Ward v. Race Horse, 163 U.S. 504 (1896); Collins v. Youngblood, 497 U.S. 37
(1990), overruling Kring v. Missouri, 107 U.S. 221 (1883) and Thompson v. Utah, 170 U.S.
overruling Coffey v. United States, 116 U.S. 436 (1886); and Hughes v. Oklahoma, 441 U.S.
67 See, e.g., Hughes v. Oklahoma, 441 U.S. 322, 331 (1979), finding that the analysis of Geer
v. Connecticut, 161 U.S. 519 (1896), had been “eroded to the point of virtual extinction” by
the evolution of Commerce Clause interpretation.
damage “the ideal of the rule of law.”68 Under this theory, espoused in the Court’s
opinion in Casey, stronger arguments should be required to overrule a precedent that
embodies the Court’s reliance on the Constitution to settle a “national controversy.”
[W]hen the Court does act in this way, its decision requires an equally rare
precedential force to counter the inevitable efforts to overturn it and to thwart its
implementation. . . . [O]nly 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. So to overrule under fire in the absence of the most
compelling reason to reexamine a watershed decision would subvert the Court’s69
legitimacy beyond any serious question.
One of the reasons that there is so little consistency in the Court’s approach to
overruling decisions is that individual Justices “individually . . . balance their
normative views on how the constitutional provision at issue should be interpreted
and their perceptions of the practical needs to submerge those views for the sake of70
certain social or institutional values such as stability, continuity, or consensus.”
There are a number of implications, not the least of which is the fact that an
individual Justice may strike a different balance between stare decisis and error
correction depending upon what the issue is and how strongly that Justice feels about
the “error” side of the balance. And of course individual Justices occasionally
change their minds as to the workability of precedents.71
Also, a Justice’s judicial philosophy can affect the balance. An originalist
presumably would favor error correction over preservation of precedent regardless
of how well established that precedent is. Justice Thomas recently advocated this
approach in construing the “public use” limitation of the Takings Clause.
Today’s decision is simply the latest in a string of our cases construing the Public
Use Clause to be a virtual nullity, without the slightest nod to its original
meaning. In my view, the Public Use Clause, originally understood, is a
68 Adarand, 515 U.S. at 233 (concurring opinion of Justice O’Connor). See also Justice
Scalia’s concurring and dissenting opinion in Pennsylvania v. Union Gas Co., 491 U.S. 1,
1 (1890), pointing out that numerous cases had followed Hans and that 49 Congresses had
legislated on the assumption that states were constitutionally insulated from suits in federal
69 505 U.S. at 867.
70 Michael J. Gerhardt, The Role of Precedent in Constitutional Decisionmaking and Theory,
71 See, e.g., Justice Blackmun’s opinion for the Court in Garcia, supra n. 44, changing his
position from National League of Cities and rejecting as unworkable the test adopted in that
case; and Justice Scalia’s recent statement in Tennessee v. Lane, 541 U.S. 509, 554 (2004)
(dissenting), that he will no longer adhere to the “congruence and proportionality” standard
the Court had devised for measuring the validity of statutes purporting to enforce the
meaningful limit on the government’s eminent domain power. Our cases have72
strayed from the Clause’s original meaning, and I would reconsider them.
Justice Thomas has also questioned the holding of a 1798 case limiting application
of the Ex Post Facto Clause to punitive legislation.73
It is not just originalists who sometimes question long lines of authority. For
example, different groups of four dissenting Justices have long challenged the
Court’s interpretation of the Eleventh Amendment, set forth in 1890 in Hans v.74
Louisiana, and reinforced in a number of the Court’s federalism decisions over the
last several decades, as barring federal court jurisdiction over suits brought by
citizens against their own state. The Amendment by its terms applies only to suits
brought against a state by citizens of another state, but the Court has interpreted the
provision as representing a broader recognition of the principle of sovereign
immunity. Justice Brennan, joined by three other Justices in 1985, urged
Because I believe that the doctrine rests on flawed premises, misguided history,
and an untenable vision of the needs of the federal system it purports to protect,
I believe that the Court should take advantage of the opportunity provided by this
case to reexamine the doctrine’s historical and jurisprudential foundations. Such75
an inquiry would reveal that the Court . . . has taken a wrong turn.
On the current Court, Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer have continued
this argument despite the fact that the Court majority has continued to apply and76
extend the sovereign immunity principle reflected by Hans.
For years Justices Brennan and Marshall voted against imposition of the death
penalty on the basis of their views that the death penalty “is in all circumstances cruel
72 Kelo v. City of New London, 125 S. Ct. 2655, 2678 (2005) (Justice Thomas dissenting).
Similarly, the Justice advocated reconsideration of Commerce Clause jurisprudence in
United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549, 584 (1995) (concurring): “I write separately to observe
that our case law has drifted far from the original understanding of the Commerce Clause.
In a future case, we ought to temper our Commerce Clause jurisprudence in a manner that
both makes sense of our recent case law and is more faithful to the original understanding
of that Clause.”
73 Eastern Enterprises v. Apfel, 524 U.S. 498, 538-39 (1998) (concurring) (stating a
willingness to reconsider Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 386 (1798)).
74 134 U.S. 1 (1890).
75 Atascadero State Hosp. v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 248 (1985). See also Justice Brennan’s
opinions in Welch v. Texas Dep’t of Highways & Pub. Transp., 483 U.S. 468, 496 (1987);
Dellmuth v. Muth, 491 U.S. 223, 233 (1989); and Port Auth. Trans-Hudson Corp. v. Feeney,
76 See, e.g., Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 76, 100 (1996) (dissenting
opinions of Justices Stevens and Souter, respectively); Alden v. Maine, 527 U.S. 706, 760,
814 (1999) (dissenting opinion of Justice Souter) (“I expect the Court’s late essay into
immunity doctrine will prove the equal of its earlier experiment in laissez-faire, the one
being as unrealistic as the other, as indefensible, and probably as fleeting.”)
and unusual punishment,” despite the accretion of precedents by which the Court
accepted capital punishment as constitutional, and Justice Blackmun later came to
hold the same view.77
How does one measure the impact of stare decisis on the Court’s decision
making? One extensive study of the subject suggests that the critical question is
whether “precedent actually cause[s] justices to reach decisions that they otherwise
would not have made.”78 This can be verified if Justices voice disapproval of
precedent but nonetheless vote to uphold it.79 Spaeth and Segal’s conclusion is that
“in the realm of stare decisis, minority will does not defer to majority rule.”80
This sampling of the Court’s practice in adhering to or departing from precedent
seems to bear out Justice Souter’s observation, quoted above, that the decision
whether to overrule precedent involves “a variety of often competing
considerations”81 (including competing perspectives among the Justices). Stare
decisis is always one such consideration when the Court decides whether to overrule
precedent. But because the Court does not appear to have developed a “coherent or
stable conception of the appropriate role of precedent in constitutional
adjudication,”82 it is difficult to predict when the Court will rely on stare decisis and
when it will depart from it.
77 See, e.g., Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584, 600 (1977) (Justices Brennan and Marshall
concurring separately); Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586, 619 (1978) (Justice Marshall
concurring); Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782, 801 (1982) (Justice Brennan, concurring);
Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141, 1145 (1994) (Justice Blackmun, dissenting from denial
of certiorari) (“From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.
. . . I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty
experiment has failed.”)
78 HAROLD J. SPAETH AND JEFFREY A. SEGAL, MAJORITY RULE OR MINORITY WILL:
ADHERENCE TO PRECEDENT ON THE U.S. SUPREME COURT 7 (1999).
79 As, for, example, Chief Justice Rehnquist suggested he might have been doing in voting
in Dickerson v. United States not to overrule Miranda. Supra, text accompanying n. 51.
80 Id. at 315.
81 See text accompanying n. 11.
82 Monaghan, supra n. 4.