Stare decisis is a Latin phrase meaning “to stand by things decided.” In the judicial context, it is also known as the “doctrine of precedent, under which a court must follow earlier judicial decisions when the same points arise again in litigation.” The U.S. Supreme Court has said that stare decisis is “of fundamental importance to the rule of law.” The part it plays in actual judicial decisionmaking, however, is complex, and varies depending on the judicial system, court, and category of case. A recent treatise on the subject, for example, spans more than 800 pages.
This Legal Memorandum examines stare decisis in the context that receives the most attention: Supreme Court cases that involve prior interpretations of the Constitution. Rather than address the substantive merit of various decisions, the focus here is on the Supreme Court’s application of principles or factors when deciding whether to overturn a constitutional precedent. To that end, it offers as examples decisions that have been criticized by both liberals and conservatives.
Stare decisis is an increasingly common topic during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees. In fact, adjusting for the length of each hearing record, references to “stare decisis” or “precedent” more than doubled between the 1971 confirmation hearing for Associate Justices William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell and the 2017 hearing for Justice Neil Gorsuch. Frequency, however, has not necessarily meant clarity. Senators often raise the subject in order to elicit clues about which precedents a nominee is likely to affirm or overrule. Unwilling to provide such “hints…forecasts…[or] previews,” nominees may offer little in response.
In April 2017, when Senator Chris Coons (D–DE) asked Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch whether certain precedents were “binding” or “settled,” Gorsuch responded that “they are…due all the weight of a precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court.” In June 2010, Senator John Cornyn (R–TX) asked nominee Elena Kagan if the Supreme Court’s decision the previous day in McDonald v. City of Chicago “has full stare decisis effect.” Kagan said only that McDonald is “entitled to all the weight that precedent usually gets.” She offered the identical response when Senator Orrin Hatch (R–UT) asked her about the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Her response suggested that little had changed. Nearly a quarter-century earlier, Senator Edward Kennedy (D–MA) asked Supreme Court nominee Antonin Scalia: “Well, what weight do you give the precedents of the Supreme Court? Are they given any weight? Are they given some weight? Are they given a lot of weight?” Scalia answered, “It depends on the nature of the precedent, the nature of the issue.”
Stare decisis can operate vertically or horizontally. Vertical stare decisis, which refers to binding precedents of a higher court in the same jurisdiction, is “an inflexible rule that admits of no exception.” This paper focuses instead on horizontal stare decisis, or “a court’s obligation to follow its own precedents,” which has been called a “shape-shifting doctrine.” In the long run, while decisions of higher courts are followed as a matter of law, a court follows its own precedents as a matter of choice. The focus here is on stare decisis in the U.S. Supreme Court and, more specifically, in cases that involve whether to retain or abandon prior interpretations of the Constitution.
Supreme Court nominees have frequently described the Court following its precedents as a presumption. In the 1971 hearing on his nomination to be an Associate Justice, for example, William Rehnquist observed that there is “a presumption in favor of precedent in every instance.” Similarly, Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained at her July 2009 confirmation hearing that “the presumption is in favor of deference to precedent.” This presumption, however, is rebuttable. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor put it in practical terms at her 1981 hearing when she said that stare decisis “is not cast in stone but it is very important.” This analysis will look at the presumption of stare decisis, factors or criteria for rebutting that presumption, and some examples of the Supreme Court putting these principles into practice.
The Presumption of Stare Decisis
Stare decisis is a presumption for both negative and positive reasons. On the negative side, it helps limit the power of the judiciary and, therefore, of government. “If men were angels,” wrote James Madison, “no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Those controls include the separation of federal government power into three branches. In Federalist No.78, Alexander Hamilton wrote that “liberty can have nothing to fear from the judiciary alone, but would have everything to fear from its union with either of the other departments.”
Another control is that the Constitution guarantees a republican form of government in which, wrote Founder James Wilson, “the people are masters of the government.” The people assert that mastery by using the Constitution to set rules for the powers and operation of government. In Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court explained that the Constitution is written so that its “limits may be neither mistaken nor forgotten” and that the “framers of the Constitution contemplated that instrument as a rule for the government of courts, as well as of the Legislature.”
Hamilton also explained that the judiciary would be the “weakest” and “least dangerous” branch because the judiciary has “neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment.” To avoid that judgment becoming “arbitrary discretion,” Hamilton wrote, it is “indispensable that [judges] should be bound down by strict rules and precedents, which serve to define and point out their duty in every particular case that comes before them.” More than two centuries later, in the January 2006 hearing on his Supreme Court nomination, Justice Samuel Alito cited Hamilton in explaining that stare decisis “is a fundamental part of our legal system…because it limits the power of the judiciary.”
On the positive side, stare decisis is a presumption because it promotes confidence that judicial decisions are not simply “arbitrary, based on personal preference, or unbounded.” The Supreme Court has explained that “[s]tare decisis is the preferred course of action because it…contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.” Stare decisis also contributes to “stability in the law,” as well as “evenhandedness” and “predictability.” At her 1981 confirmation hearing, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained that stare decisis “plays a very significant role our legal system” because “stability of the law and predictability of the law are vitally important concepts.” Professor Michael Sinclair connects the negative and positive effects of stare decisis when he writes that its “most significant” virtue “is the stability, continuity, and predictability it lends to the law….Stability and certainty reduce judicial discretion.”
A Rebuttable Presumption
The presumption that the Supreme Court will follow its own past decisions, however, is not, as the Supreme Court itself has often said, “a universal, inexorable command.” Several principles support this conclusion. The first is the general distinction between “common law” and “civil law” judicial systems. A common law system is a “system of making law by judicial opinion” in which past judicial decisions are literally “the law” that judges use to decide present cases. Not surprisingly, “an absolute prerequisite to common-law lawmaking is the doctrine of stare decisis—that is, the principle that a decision in one case will be followed in the next.”
The U.S. federal judiciary, however, operates under a civil law system in which, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “there is no such thing as common law. Every issue of law I resolve as a federal judge is an interpretation of text—the text of a regulation, or of a statute, or of the Constitution.” Justice Clarence Thomas has described the judicial task this way: “We interpret and apply written law to the facts of particular cases.” In a civil law system, the law that judges use to decide cases is made not by judges, but by the legislative branch (statutes), the executive branch (regulations), or the people through their elected representatives (the Constitution).
The Constitution and Constitutional Law. This fundamental principle was understood at America’s Founding. In 1795, less than a decade after the Constitution was ratified, the Supreme Court addressed the question, “What is the Constitution?” Its answer was that the Constitution “is delineated by the mighty hand of the people” and “contains [their] permanent will.” The Constitution “can be revoked or altered only by the authority that made it.” Since the Supreme Court did not make the Constitution, it does not have final authority to alter it and, therefore, its decisions interpreting the Constitution cannot take precedence over it.
Interpreting a written text requires “discovering…the meaning which the authors…designed it to convey to others.” An interpretation of text, therefore, is not the same as the text itself. Similarly, the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the Constitution are just that—interpretations—and are not themselves the “supreme law of the land.” Justice Felix Frankfurter expressed this view when he wrote that “the ultimate touchstone of constitutionality is the Constitution itself and not what we have said about it.” Justice William O. Douglas made the same point a decade later in his famous article on stare decisis. “A judge looking at a constitutional decision,” Douglas wrote, “may have compulsions to revere past history and accept what was once written. But he remembers above all else that it is the Constitution which he swore to support and defend, not the gloss which his predecessors may have put on it.”
On October 21, 1986, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese III addressed this issue in a lecture at Tulane University titled “The Law of the Constitution.” He examined the “necessary distinction between the Constitution and constitutional law.” These two, he said, “are not synonymous.” While the Constitution is “a document of our most fundamental law,” Meese explained, “constitutional law is what the Supreme Court says about the Constitution in its decisions resolving the cases and controversies that come before it.” The Court’s decisions do have a “binding quality,” especially on the parties to a particular case, but they are not themselves the “supreme law of the land.”
The difference between written law and its interpretation, then, tells us that stare decisis is not absolute. If it were, a new Supreme Court Justice being sworn into office would be taking an oath to “support and defend” herself and the opinions of her peers, past and present. Professor Stephen Carter offers another practical reason for this distinction between the Constitution and constitutional law. He writes that “if the decisions of the courts enjoy a status co-equal with the Constitution itself, then the argument that a case is wrongly decided because it is inconsistent with the Constitution no longer makes sense.”
Unequal Precedent. The second principle is that, in addition to stare decisis generally being less than absolute, “not all precedent is created equal.” Since interpretations of the Constitution or statutes are not themselves law, they can be wrong, and their strength as precedents depends on the steps necessary to correct error. When Congress believes that the Supreme Court has misconstrued one of its statutes, it can correct that error with legislation. Correcting a misinterpretation of the Constitution, however, requires either a constitutional amendment or the Court abandoning its errant precedent.
As a result, the Court has long been more willing to reconsider its precedents in constitutional, rather than in statutory, cases. Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1932 that “in cases involving the Federal Constitution, where correction through legislation is practically impossible, this Court has often overruled its earlier decisions.”During her confirmation hearing on October 14, 2020, Justice Amy Coney Barrett said that “no justice that I’m aware of, throughout history, has ever maintained the position that overruling a case is never appropriate….[T]he Supreme Court has always said that in some cases, overruling precedent is the right course for the Court to take. But that it’s not done willy nilly.”
Special Justification. The third principle is that, as Justice Brett Kavanaugh recently explained, overruling a constitutional decision requires a “special justification” or “strong grounds.” The Supreme Court has recognized certain factors or criteria for determining when those grounds exist, making reversal of a precedent the “right course for the Court to take.”
Rebutting the Stare Decisis Presumption
The presumption of stare decisis, as Justice David Souter explained at his 1990 confirmation hearing, is “a bedrock necessity if we are going to have in our judicial systems anything that can be called the rule of law as opposed simply to random decisions on a case-to-case basis.”
At three different levels, however, this presumption is not absolute.
- First, stare decisis is generally less dominant in civil law systems in which courts interpret and apply written law to decide cases.
- Second, within that system, stare decisis is a weaker presumption when the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution than when it interprets a statute.
- Third, at the level of individual cases, “some precedents are weaker and some are stronger.”
The sheer volume of scholarship and analysis, including the recent publication of an 800-plus page treatise, shows that no strict formula exists for the Supreme Court to determine whether to retain or reverse its constitutional precedents. Rather, “[w]hen the Supreme Court decides to overrule a precedent, it applies what it calls the ‘principles of stare decisis.’” These principles, Souter explained, help address “the problem of trying to give a proper value to a given precedent when someone asks a court to overrule it and to go another way.”
Some commentators argue that the only relevant stare decisis principle is whether the precedent, as an original matter, correctly interpreted the Constitution. For them, the distinction between the Constitution and constitutional law trumps every other consideration. In his concurring opinion in Gamble v. United States, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that “the Court’s typical formulation of the stare decisis standard does not comport with our judicial duty under Article III because it elevates demonstrably erroneous decisions…over the text of the Constitution and other duly enacted federal law.” Anything less than “adherence to the correct, original meaning of the laws we are charged with applying,” he wrote, “invites arbitrariness into judging.”
The Court, however, has not gone that far. Instead, the “typical formulation of the stare decisis standard” requires “good reasons” or a “special justification” to overrule a constitutional precedent. The “threshold question,” Souter explained, is “whether the prior case was wrong.” If it was, “then we look to a series of factors to try to decide how much value we ought to put on that precedent even though it is not one that we particularly like or would think appropriate in the first instance.” The fact that a prior decision incorrectly interpreted the Constitution, therefore, is a necessary but not a sufficient justification for the Court to overrule it.
The Supreme Court commonly considers five “prudential and pragmatic” factors “when deciding whether to overrule a precedent interpreting the Constitution.” These are:
- the quality of the reasoning of the prior decision;
- the workability of the prior decision, or “whether the precedent’s rules or standards are too difficult for lower federal courts or other interpreters to apply”;
- whether the prior decision is inconsistent with related decisions;
- whether there is a changed understanding of relevant facts; and
- the reliance interests implicated by the prior decision.
The first four of these factors focus on a precedent’s merit and impact within the judicial system, while the fifth factor considers its impact outside of the judiciary. “The Supreme Court may consider whether it should retain a precedent, even if flawed, because overruling the decision would injure…[those] who had relied on it.” Reliance encompasses more than just courts relying on it to reach certain legal results, but also includes how governments, individuals, and other entities have relied on it to structure their real world dealings.
A recent treatise authored by a group of federal judges, The Law of Judicial Precedent, provides a more detailed discussion of factors that the Supreme Court considers. Factors that counsel overruling a precedent include:
- that it “is contrary to plain principles of law”;
- that it “hasn’t been followed or acquiesced in,” the “decision has been met with general dissatisfaction, protest, or severe criticism”; and
- that it “was wrong in the first place, it produces general injustice, and less harm will result from overruling the decision than from allowing it to stand.”
Conversely, factors leading the Court to retain a precedent include:
- that the decision “has stood unchallenged for many years”;
- that the decision “has been universally accepted, acted on, and acquiesced in by courts, the legal profession, and the general public”;
- that reliance “has been placed on the prior decision: contracts have been made, business transacted, and rights adjusted in reliance on the decision for a long time or to a great extent”; or
- that the “prior decision involved interpretation of a statute.”
Supreme Court nominees have also discussed factors that give precedents greater weight. Rehnquist, for example, said that “great weight should be given to precedent” generally, but that a unanimous decision “makes a precedent stronger” than a 5–4 decision. He also said that a decision that is “not only unanimous at the time it was handed down, but has been repeatedly reaffirmed” or has “stood for a long time” has greater precedential weight.
The idea that not all precedents are created equal applies to the distinction between constitutional and statutory interpretations, but does it also apply among constitutional precedents themselves? The descriptive label “super precedent,” for example, has been used in several different ways to identify either the effect or the permanence of certain Supreme Court decisions. As Justice Barrett pointed out in her confirmation hearing, however, “it is not a doctrinal term that comes from the Supreme Court.” The term first appeared in a 1976 article examining the citation of precedents in judicial decisions. The authors defined a “super precedent” as one “that it so effective in defining the requirements of the law that it prevents legal disputes from arising in the first place.”
The label has also been used to describe a precedent’s permanence, either because its validity as a precedent would never be challenged or because it would be invulnerable to such a challenge. Professor Michael Gerhardt, for example, defines a super precedent as a decision that “has been widely and uniformly accepted by public authorities generally, including the [Supreme] Court, the President, and Congress.” In other words, these are precedents that no one would challenge or, as Barrett has written, that “no justice would overrule, even if she disagrees with the interpretive premises from which the precedent proceeds.” Gerhardt argues that Roe v. Wade would not constitute a super precedent because of the “persistent condemnation of Roe, particularly by national political leaders.”
In her scholarship and during her confirmation hearing, Barrett addressed the topic of super precedents in this context. A super precedent, she told the Judiciary Committee, is “so well established that it would be unthinkable that it would ever be overruled. And there are about six cases on this list that other scholars have identified.”
The label “super precedent” has also been applied to precedents that, while not “widely and uniformly accepted,” are said to be virtually immune from reversal because they have repeatedly been reaffirmed. This idea was first suggested by Judge J. Michael Luttig during the litigation in Richmond Medical Center for Women v. Gilmore, which challenged a Virginia law prohibiting partial-birth abortions. The district court granted a preliminary injunction against the statute, Judge Luttig stayed that injunction, and a three-judge appeals court panel refused to vacate the stay. These decisions were made before the Supreme Court announced its decision in Stenberg v. Carhart, which challenged Nebraska’s ban on partial-birth abortions.
On the merits, the district court found the statute unconstitutional. While that decision was pending before the Fourth Circuit, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Stenberg, finding Nebraska’s statute unconstitutional. When the Fourth Circuit agreed to lift the stay on the injunction against the Virginia statute, Luttig agreed that it was “not sustainable” under Stenberg. He wrote: “I understand the Supreme Court to have intended its decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey…to be a decision of super-stare decisis with respect to a woman’s fundamental right to choose whether or not to proceed with a pregnancy.”
In Casey, the Supreme Court held that “the essential holding of Roe v. Wade should be retained and once again reaffirmed.” Luttig believed that the precedential status of Roe v. Wade was “not merely confirmed, but reinforced, by the Court’s recent decision in Stenberg v. Carhart.” In Stenberg, citing Roe and Casey, the Supreme Court observed that “this Court…has determined and then redetermined that the Constitution offers basic protection to the woman’s right to choose….We shall not revisit those legal principles.”
In several confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees, some senators extended the argument that Roe v. Wade is a “super precedent” by multiplying the circumstances that they believe count as a reaffirmance of that precedent. During the 2005 hearing for Chief Justice John Roberts, for example, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R–PA) claimed that “Roe [had] been taken up…with an opportunity for Roe to be overruled” a total of 38 times. Each time the Supreme Court did not overrule Roe, Specter argued, counts as an actual “reaffirmation.” With so many reaffirmations, he said, Roe has “become a super-duper, or maybe even more, super-duper-duper [precedent].” Specter made the same argument during the 2006 hearing for Justice Samuel Alito and in the 2009 hearing for Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In 2017, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D–CA) raised the issue during the hearing for Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Senator Orrin Hatch (R–UT), who served on the Judiciary Committee during these hearings, examined the Specter/Feinstein argument, concluding that Roe v. Wade had actually been reaffirmed only three times. The other cases on the Specter/Feinstein lists did not challenge abortion restrictions at all, never even cited Roe, applied it without discussing its validity, or explicitly declined to address Roe’s validity as a precedent.
While the term “super precedent” may have some descriptive utility, it is not a doctrinal or jurisprudential category. At his hearing, Alito declined to “get into categorizing precedents as super precedents or super duper precedents.” Similarly, Sotomayor said that “I don’t use the word ‘super.’ I don’t know how to take that word. All precedent of the Court is entitled to the respect of the doctrine of stare decisis.” The better approach is to keep the factors that some say place certain precedents in a separate “super” category, such as reaffirmance, in their proper analytical place. Those factors are among several that the Supreme Court considers when evaluating the validity of its constitutional precedents.
The Stare Decisis Rebuttable Presumption in Practice
The Supreme Court has applied the stare decisis factors in a variety of cases when deciding whether to retain or abandon its precedents. Dissenting Justices not only disagree about the result of applying these factors, but sometimes accuse the majority of even creating new stare decisis approaches to reach a preferred result. That said, the process of identifying, applying, and explaining the stare decisis analysis means that discretion may be less “arbitrary,” a goal the Founders sought to achieve. This does not mean that the original decision was correct, or that its interpretation of the Constitution was valid. Nor does it mean that the result of that original decision, or of its reconsideration, will be conservative or liberal. The discussion that follows highlights some well-known decisions to demonstrate how the Supreme Court has applied the principles of stare decisis.
The Precedents: Cases Establishing the “Dual Sovereignty” Doctrine
The Decision: Gamble v. United States
The Result: Reaffirmed
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that no person shall “be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Since the mid-19th century, the Supreme Court has held that “offense” means the violation of a law. The same conduct, therefore, could violate the laws of two separate sovereigns, such as a state and the United States, and could be prosecuted twice. This came to be known as the “dual sovereignty doctrine.”
When Terance Gamble, who had previously been convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm under Alabama law, faced federal prosecution for the same conduct, he asked the Court to overrule the dual-sovereignty doctrine. In a 7–2 decision, the Court declined to do so.
In writing for the Court, Justice Alito said that “the doctrine of stare decisis is another obstacle” to Gamble’s argument. He explained that stare decisis “promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.” Effectively reversing an entire doctrinal category, Alito wrote, would require overruling numerous major decisions “spanning 170 years.” Finally, neither the application of the Double Jeopardy Clause to the states nor the expansion of federal criminal law “washed away any theoretical foundation of the dual-sovereignty rule.”
The Precedent: Roe v. Wade
The Decision: Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey
The Result: “Essential Holding” Reaffirmed
This decision is an example not only of the Supreme Court applying the principles of stare decisis, but also how the Court may do so to reach a result other than simply affirming or overruling a precedent in its entirety.
In Roe v. Wade, the plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of a Texas law prohibiting abortion except to save the life of the mother. The U.S. District Court held that the “fundamental right of single women and married persons to choose whether to have children is protected by the Ninth Amendment.” The U.S. Supreme Court voted 7–2 to also hold the law unconstitutional, but for a different reason. It held that, although the Constitution “does not explicitly mention any right of privacy…the Court has recognized that a right of personal privacy…does exist under the Constitution.” This right of privacy, which the Court said was “founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty,” is “broad enough to cover the abortion decision” but “is not absolute and is subject to some limitations” so that “at some point the state interests as to protection of health, medical standards, and prenatal life, become paramount.”
In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of several provisions of the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act. These provisions required that, prior to obtaining an abortion: (1) a woman’s consent to an abortion had to be informed; (2) a minor had to obtain either consent from one of her parents or a judicial bypass order; and (3) a married woman had to attest that she had notified her spouse. The only exception to compliance with these requirements was for abortions performed as a “medical emergency,” provided that abortion facilities performing such abortions met certain reporting requirements.
In a controversial decision, the Supreme Court split three ways regarding the validity of Roe v. Wade. Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter authored what became known as the “joint opinion.” They considered the fundamental constitutional questions resolved by Roe, principles of institutional integrity, and the rule of stare decisis” and concluded that the “essential holding of Roe v. Wade should be retained and once again reaffirmed.”
This holding has three parts. First, women have a constitutional right “to choose to have an abortion before viability and to obtain it without undue interference from the State.” Second, the government may restrict abortion after viability “if the law contains exceptions for pregnancies which endanger the woman’s life or health.” Third, the government has legitimate interests “from the outset of pregnancy in protecting the health of the woman and the life of the fetus that may become a child.”
Even though the Casey joint opinion said that it was reaffirming Roe’s essential holding, it bore little resemblance to that precedent. Roe, for example, split pregnancy into three parts for purposes of weighing the woman’s abortion right against the government’s interests; Casey divided pregnancy into two parts, pre- and post-viability. Roe left little room for the government to restrict abortion in the first trimester; Casey allowed pre-viability restrictions, which would include the first trimester, that did not impose an “undue burden.”
Even though the joint opinion introduced the novel concept of “undue burden,” it still claimed that it was “reaffirming the central holding of Roe.” This conclusion was supposedly based on “the explication of individual liberty we have given combined with the force of stare decisis.” After discussing the general purpose for stare decisis, the joint opinion examined specific factors, such as:
- “[W]hether the rule has proven to be intolerable simply in defying practical workability.” They concluded: “Although Roe has engendered opposition, it has in no sense proven ‘unworkable.’”
- “[W]hether the rule is subject to a kind of reliance that would lend a special hardship to the consequences of overruling and add inequity to the cost of repudiation.” They concluded that overruling Roe “would be simply to refuse to face the fact that for two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.”
- “[W]hether related principles of law have so far developed as to have left the old rule not more than a remnant of abandoned doctrine.” They concluded: “No evolution of legal principle has left Roe’s doctrinal footings weaker than they were in 1973. No development of constitutional law since the case was decided has implicitly or explicitly left Roe behind as a mere survivor of obsolete constitutional thinking.”
- “[W]hether facts have so changed, or come to be seen so differently, as to have robbed the old rule of significant application or justification. While acknowledging that “time has overtaken some of Roe’s factual assumptions,” they concluded that these facts “have no bearing on the validity of Roe’s central holding.”
Chief Justice Rehnquist, joined by Justices Byron White, Scalia, and Thomas, wrote that “Roe was wrongly decided, and that it can and should be overruled consistently with our traditional approach to stare decisis in constitutional cases.” The joint opinion, they argued, had used a “a newly minted variation on stare decisis” to “retain the outer shell of Roe v. Wade.”
The Supreme Court’s decisions in Roe and Casey remain highly controversial—both on their own and in relation to each other. Significantly, whether a constitutional precedent continues to be criticized is one of the factors relevant to its validity. Cases continue to be filed seeking their reversal or challenging their legal underpinnings.
The Precedent: Bowers v. Hardwick
The Decision: Lawrence v. Texas
The Result: Overruled
While the prior two cases examined instances in which the Supreme Court applied the principles of stare decisis to retain its prior decisions, it sometimes applies the principles and comes to the conclusion that its prior precedents should be overruled. While the Supreme Court’s constitutional precedents are entitled to a presumption of validity, “some of the most important [or consequential] Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history were those in which the Court overruled or departed from one of its precedents.”
In Bowers v. Hardwick, the Supreme Court voted 5–4 to uphold the constitutionality of a Georgia statute criminalizing sodomy. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that the statute violated the “fundamental” right to “private and intimate association” protected by the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court said the issue was whether “the Federal Constitution confers a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy.”
Writing for the Court, Justice White concluded that none of its cases recognizing a right to personal privacy “bears any resemblance to the claimed constitutional right of homosexuals to engage in acts of sodomy.” The Court refused to expand the right to privacy further because it did not meet either of the two tests for identifying unenumerated fundamental rights. It was neither “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty” nor “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.”
In Lawrence v. Texas, two men prosecuted for engaging in private consensual homosexual activity challenged the Texas statute under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. and Texas Constitutions. The Texas Court of Appeals, applying Bowers v. Hardwick, rejected the constitutional challenge and affirmed the convictions. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for the Court, which voted 5–4 to reverse. His analysis showed how the principles of stare decisis, while offering some guidance, can nonetheless be manipulated to reach a desired result.
While the Court in Bowers viewed the right to privacy as confined to the factual context of the precedents recognizing it, for example, the Court in Lawrence treated those decisions as a floor rather than a ceiling. As a result, the Court viewed Bowers as an outlier from its previous decisions that expanded the “substantive reach of liberty under the Due Process Clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Looking more specifically at the stare decisis factors, Kennedy concluded that factual circumstances had changed since the Court decided Bowers by narrowing his frame of reference. While Bowers relied on broad statements about historical condemnation of homosexual activity, Kennedy focused on “our laws and traditions in the past half century,” which show an “emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex.” The number of states with anti-sodomy laws declined from 50 before 1961, to 25 at the time Bowers was decided in 1986, to 13 when the Court decided Lawrence in 2003.
While Kennedy narrowed his focus when examining whether factual circumstances had changed, he broadened the focus when considering how principles of law had developed since Bowers. Specifically, he asserted that the “foundations of Bowers have sustained serious erosion from our recent decisions in” Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Romer v. Evans. Casey, of course, involved abortion, and Romer was decided on equal protection grounds. Bowers, in contrast, involved sodomy and was decided on due process grounds.
Kennedy was in the plurality of Justices authoring the joint opinion in Casey, which emphasized reliance interests to justify upholding at least the “central holding” of Roe. In Bowers, however, Kennedy dismissed those concerns. “Indeed,” he wrote, “there has been no individual or social reliance on Bowers of the sort that could counsel against overturning its holding once there are compelling reasons to do so.” In short, “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.”
As they did in their Casey dissent, Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Thomas, accused the majority of employing a contrived version of stare decisis, writing that “we should be consistent rather than manipulative in invoking the doctrine.” They argued that the same stare decisis factors that the Court used to reaffirm the “essential holding” of Roe would counsel similarly reaffirming Bowers. In Casey, for example, the widespread criticism of Roe was a strong reason to reaffirm it, while in Lawrence, “the widespread opposition to Bowers” was a reason to overrule it.
The Precedents: Johnson v. Louisiana and Apodaca v. Oregon
The Decision: Ramos v. Louisiana
The Result: Overruled
In a pair of 1972 decisions, the Supreme Court addressed whether the Constitution requires a unanimous jury verdict to convict someone of a serious criminal offense. In these cases, the appellants argued that unanimity is necessary to apply the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. In Johnson v. Louisiana, a jury voted 9–3 to convict the defendant of armed robbery. The Supreme Court held that, while the Fourteenth Amendment had been interpreted to require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, this standard applies to the majority that convicts and does not, by itself, require unanimity. Justice Byron White wrote that “the fact of three dissenting votes to acquit raises no question of constitutional substance about either the integrity or the accuracy of the majority verdict of guilt.”
In Apodaca v. Oregon, juries convicted three men of serious crimes by votes of 11–1 in two cases and 10–2 in another. Writing for himself and three other members of the Court, Justice White focused on “the function served by the jury in contemporary society.” The Court held that, unlike the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause, the Sixth Amendment does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt for a criminal conviction and, therefore, does not require unanimity.
This issue returned to the Supreme Court during the 2019–2020 term. In Ramos v. Louisiana, a jury voted 10–2 to convict Evangelisto Ramos of a serious crime, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. By a 6–3 vote, the Supreme Court overturned Ramos’ conviction and reversed both Johnson v. Louisiana and Apodaca v. Oregon.
Justice Neil Gorsuch applied the principles of stare decisis, starting with the view that those precedents were “gravely mistaken” and noting that “no Member of the Court today defends either as rightly decided.” Apodaca’s reasoning was flawed, he explained, because “the plurality spent almost no time grappling with the historical meaning of the Sixth Amendment’s jury trial right.” Not only was Apodaca inconsistent with “120 years of preceding case law,” but its status as a jurisprudential outlier was magnified by later developments. These include the Court rejecting what was arguably the foundation of Justice Lewis Powell’s deciding vote in Apodaca.
Looking at reliance interests, Gorsuch observed that “neither Louisiana nor Oregon claims anything like the prospective economic, regulatory, or social disruption litigants seeking to preserve precedent usually invoke…. Nor does anyone suggest that nonunanimous verdicts have ‘become part of our national culture.’ It would be quite surprising if they had,” he wrote, “given that nonunanimous verdicts are insufficient to convict in 48 States and federal court.”
Like the dissenters in Casey and Lawrence, the dissenting Justices in Ramos accused the majority of changing the doctrine of stare decisis itself. Joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Elana Kagan, Justice Alito wrote: “The doctrine of stare decisis gets rough treatment in today’s decision. Lowering the bar for overruling our precedents, a badly fractured majority casts aside an important and long-established decision with little regard for the enormous reliance the decision has engendered.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh explained his concern that “the Court has articulated and applied those various individual [stare decisis] factors without establishing any consistent methodology or roadmap for how to analyze all of the factors taken together.” Kavanaugh offered an approach that would organize the stare decisis factors into “three broad considerations.” First, “is the prior decision not just wrong, but grievously or egregiously wrong?” Second, “has the prior decision caused significant negative jurisprudential or real-world consequences?” And third, “would overruling the prior decision unduly upset reliance interests?” Applying those broad categories, he agreed with the majority’s decision to overrule these two precedents.
The Precedent: Plessy v. Ferguson
The Decision: Brown v. Board of Education
The Result: De Facto Overruled
The discussion of Casey noted that the Supreme Court’s reconsideration of a precedent may not always result in a direct reaffirmance or reversal. In Casey, the Court said it was reaffirming the “essential holding” of Roe v. Wade. The Court had previously reaffirmed the “general principles laid down in Roe.” Another variation includes decisions that can be described as reaffirming or overruling a precedent in practice without the Court explicitly using certain words or phrases.
In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court held that a Louisiana law providing for “equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races” on passenger trains did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. Justice Henry Brown, for the eight-Justice majority, wrote that a statute “which implies merely a legal distinction” based on race “has no tendency to destroy the legal equality” of the races.
In Brown v. Board of Education, the Court addressed whether this “separate but equal” doctrine permitted states to segregate public school students on the basis of race. While not using phrases such as “principles of stare decisis,” the Court applied the same basic analysis to conclude unanimously that “[s]eparate education facilities are inherently unequal.”
The Court noted that the “separate but equal” doctrine had emerged not only recently, but in the context of transportation rather than public education. The Court had considered six cases since Plessy “involving the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine in the field of public education,” but had not re-examined that precedent. Instead, in one of those cases, “the Court had expressly reserved decision on the question whether Plessy v. Ferguson should be held inapplicable to public education.” The Court also explained how Plessy itself was inconsistent with prior caselaw, which had interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as “proscribing all state-imposed discriminations” based on race against a particular race. It also discussed the changed circumstances surrounding public education since Plessy.
The Precedent: Abood v. Detroit Board of Education
The Decision: Janus v. Am. Fed. of State, Cnty., and Mun. Employees, Council 31
The Result: Overruled
Can employees be forced to subsidize organizations and speech promoting political views or policy positions with which they disagree? In 1977, the Supreme Court held in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that public sector employees who are not union members may be charged a fee to subsidize union activities that are “germane to [the union’s] duties as collective-bargaining representative.” That fee could not, however, be imposed to pay for the union’s political or ideological activities. The Court said that such a fee arrangement does not violate the First Amendment.
In Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, an Illinois public sector employee challenged a similar fee arrangement. This time, the Supreme Court concluded that it did violate the First Amendment and overruled Abood.
Justice Alito, writing for the majority in Janus, recognized that “our cases identify factors that should be taken into account in deciding whether to overrule a past decision. Five of these are most important here: the quality of Abood ‹s reasoning, the workability of the rule it established, its consistency with other related decisions, developments since the decision was handed down, and reliance on the decision. After analyzing these factors, we conclude that stare decisis does not require us to retain Abood.”
The Precedent: Williamson County Regional Planning Comm’n v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City
The Decision: Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania
The Result: Overruled
The Fifth Amendment provides that “private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation.” In Williamson County Regional Planning Commission v. Hamilton Bank of Johnson City, a jury found that actions by a county planning commission amounted to a Fifth Amendment taking and awarded damages to a landowner. The Supreme Court, however, held that the lawsuit had been premature. “[A] property owner whose property has been taken by a local government has not suffered a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights—and thus cannot bring a federal takings claim in federal court—until a state court has denied his claim for just compensation under state law.”
The Supreme Court revisited this issue in Knick v. Township of Scott, Pennsylvania. In this case, a property owner whose land included a small cemetery challenged in state court an ordinance requiring that cemeteries be open to the public. In a seeming catch-22, the township agreed to stay its enforcement action during the court proceedings, but the court stayed its proceedings because there was no active enforcement action by the township. When Knick filed a federal lawsuit, the U.S. District Court said that Williamson required that she first seek compensation in state court.
In a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court concluded that this “state litigation” requirement significantly undermined the Fifth Amendment’s protection of the right to own property. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts said that “the state-litigation requirement imposes an unjustifiable burden on takings plaintiffs, conflicts with the rest of our takings jurisprudence, and must be overruled.” A property owner, the Court held, “acquires a Fifth Amendment right to compensation at the time of a taking.
In reaching this decision, the Chief Justice said, that the Court has “identified several factors to consider in deciding whether to overrule a past decision, including ‘the quality of [its] reasoning, the workability of the rule it established, its consistency with other related decisions ... and reliance on the decision.’… All of these factors counsel in favor of overruling Williamson County.” That precedent “was not just wrong. Its reasoning was exceptionally ill founded and conflicted with much of our takings jurisprudence.” Because of its “shaky foundations, the state-litigation requirement has been a rule in search of a justification for over 30 years.”
This Legal Memorandum has examined how stare decisis, or the practice of a court following its previous decisions, operates in the context of Supreme Court decisions that interpret the Constitution. In general, stare decisis is “the norm” and an important part of the American judicial system because it limits judicial discretion and promotes stability, consistency, and predictability. For these reasons, it is a presumption that the Supreme Court will follow its constitutional precedents.
This presumption, however, can be rebutted. Precedents are generally less binding in a civil law system, in which interpretations of written law are distinct from the law itself. Past decisions interpreting the Constitution are less binding, or have less precedential weight, than those interpreting statutes. And various factors can make some precedents stronger than others. The Supreme Court applies those factors when it considers overruling a precedent and has reaffirmed or overruled the whole of some past decisions and only part, or the “essence,” of others. It has overruled some precedents explicitly and others implicitly.
The existence of “principles of stare decisis” does not suggest a strict formula for determining whether a precedent should be retained or abandoned. The need to use them and explain their application, however, can serve to reduce the “arbitrary discretion” that the Founders sought to prevent.
Thomas Jipping is Deputy Director of and Senior Legal Fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, of the Institute for Constitutional Government, at The Heritage Foundation. Zack Smith is Legal Fellow in the Meese Center.