On Friday, June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a decades-old decision that federally protected the right to an abortion across the United States.
The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health not only overturned Roe v. Wade, but also Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which was a 1992 ruling that upheld the federally protected right to abortion.
Following the decision, some people online wondered if this is the first time the Supreme Court has ever overturned a previous decision to set a new precedent.
Has the Supreme Court ever overturned a decision to set a new precedent?
Yes, the Supreme Court has overturned a decision to set a new precedent. VERIFY found more than 100 examples.
WHAT WE FOUND
For a case to reach the Supreme Court, it must first be decided in either a U.S. Court of Appeals or the highest court in a given state, if the state court decided a Constitutional issue. The ruling from a lower court would need to be appealed up to the Supreme Court, where four of the nine Justices must vote to accept a case.
When the U.S. Supreme Court makes a ruling, it sets a basis to be considered in subsequent similar circumstances, or a precedent, that would guide future legal decisions in lower courts and at the Supreme Court.
The highest court has long adhered to the idea of “stare decisis,” which is Latin for “to stand by things decided.”
The Supreme Court applies the doctrine of stare decisis by following the rules of its prior decisions unless there is a “special justification” or “strong grounds”—to overrule precedent, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
“Some Justices and scholars have argued that when a precedent conflicts with the proper understanding of the Constitution, Justices should follow the Constitution and overrule incorrect precedents instead of adhering to mistaken interpretations by past Justices,” the CRS says.
The Supreme Court considers a variety of factors when deciding to overturn a prior decision and set a new precedent. They include:
- The original court’s reasoning in the prior case.
- Whether a rule or standard that the prior case establishes for determining the constitutionality of a government action is too difficult for lower federal courts or other interpreters to apply and is thus “unworkable.”
- If the precedent is inconsistent with other Court decisions on similar matters of constitutional law.
- Changes in how the Justices and society understand the facts underlying a prior decision may undermine the authoritativeness of a precedent, leading the Court to overrule it.
These four factors were cited by Justice Samuel Alito and the other justices who signed on the the majority opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade and are outlined beginning on Page 5 of the decision.
The overturning of Roe v. Wade was not the first time in U.S. history the court set a new precedent. CRS identifies more than 100 instances of when the court set a new precedent.
The National Constitution Center in May released a short list of cases the Supreme Court had previously overturned to set a new precedent.
The 1963 ruling on Gideon v. Wainwright required state courts to appoint attorneys for defendants who couldn’t afford one. The decision reversed a 21-year-old ruling that said the contrary, that states did not have to provide court-appointed counsel.
In Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Supreme Court justices overturned the 1896 decision of Plessy v. Ferguson that created the separate, but equal policy. The ruling in Brown led to the desegregation of schools.
The decision in Brown was also cited in the majority opinion of Dobbs overturning Roe, as a historical example of why it’s sometimes necessary to overturn part rulings, or precedents.
So we can VERIFY, yes, the Supreme Court has previously overturned landmark cases to set new precedent.