Despite being the highest court in the land, let's remember that Supreme Court decisions can be—and have been—overturned.
The Supreme Court's handed down a handful of controversial decisions.
These include Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states. As expected, many on the right were quick to criticize the Court. But the Supreme Court isn't a newbie. Justices, both past and present, have handed down disruptive decisions.
But these decisions, while irrevocable, are not exactly permanent.
In 2008, District of Columbia v. Heller had many on the left up in arms. This decision stated that the Second Amendment guarantees American citizens the right to a firearm for personal safety.
And of course, there is the most famously debated Supreme Court decision: Roe v. Wade. The 1973 case legalized abortion across the nation. Whether you agree with these decisions or not, they are the law. The Supreme Court has the final say in the federal court system. While their decisions are irrevocable, they're not necessarily permanent. Under the Constitution, there are three ways to overrule a Supreme Court decision.
1. Congressional Statute
If the Supreme Court has struck down all or part of a federal statute, Congress can go back and adjust the statute to their liking. This is often used to supplement or augment Court decisions. For example, the Supreme Court decided in the 2000 case FDA v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp that the FDA didn't have the authority to regulate tobacco. Congress changed that with the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009.
Until a case concerning this federal statute comes before the Supreme Court, Congress has the final say.
2. Constitutional Amendment
The Supreme Court has the final word on the meaning of the Constitution. But there is a process of amending the Constitution. Article Five of the Constitution lays out the specific process. Amendments can be proposed by Congress, with two-thirds approval in both the House and the Senate. States can also propose them with a two-thirds majority, and the holding of a convention for proposing the amendments. Once proposed, the amendment must be ratified by a three-fourths majority of the states. The voting to ratify or reject the proposed amendment can take place in state legislatures or state conventions.
Since the adoption of the Bill of Rights, 17 amendments have been ratified. One principle example of a Constitutional amendment overturning a Supreme Court case is the Sixteenth Amendment.
In Pollock v. Farmers' Loan and Trust Company, the Supreme Court declared a progressive federal income tax unconstitutional. In 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified — completely negating this decision.
3. The Supreme Court
Finally, the Supreme Court can overrule itself. This is probably the simplest, if most unlikely, avenue. The most famous example of this is Brown v. Board of Education. This landmark case declared racial segregation unconstitutional in public schools. This case directly contradicts a case decided almost 60 years prior called Plessy v. Ferguson, which began the legal standard of "separate but equal" for segregation. But the Supreme Court doesn't change its mind often. The Brown v. Board decision was issued almost 60 years after Plessy.
Court cases you should know about
The Supreme Court's term ended with several huge decisions in cases dealing with abortion, affirmative action and immigration. With several hot-button issues being examined, the Supreme Court has been front page news for several days.
Two colleagues discuss mistakes made in reporting on court cases and how to avoid them.
L: The Supreme Court just ended its term for the year and handed down some pretty big decisions on abortion, affirmative action and immigration.
J: Covering Supreme Court cases along with other federal cases tends to be the bread and butter for a lot of newspapers and media organizations because that can affect the way people live their lives. However, sometimes cases get misreported on. Either because a journalist doesn't have the knowledge to cover a case correctly or people just simply re-report what other media organizations report on.
L: And one of the most common areas that mistakes are made is in misinterpreting what the Court is actually doing. So the Supreme Court either decides to hear a case or it doesn't decide to hear a case. And if it doesn't hear a case, the lower court decision just stands for that Circuit — for that part of the country. It doesn't apply to the rest of the country.
J: Another way journalists can mishandle the reporting of court cases is in the verbiage they use. Legal jargon can tend to be high brow and sometimes in attempts to simplify the language, they can end up using the wrong words.
J: Another trap that news organizations and reporters can fall into is not reading through, or far enough into the opinion. There was two parts to that decision, in one part they struck down the health care mandate based on the commerce clause, but they also upheld it under the taxing powers of the government. So, the individual healthcare mandate is legal and constitutional. And in not reading through that whole opinion, people ended up misreporting what the Supreme Court actually decided.
J: Journalists can end up paying way too much attention to the drama and the hype that surrounds the case and use that as filler in the reporting, rather than referring to the facts.
L: That's a good point especially because the Supreme Court often consolidates cases that have a similar Constitutional question or concern. So like the contraceptive mandate part of Obamacare was under review this term and they consolidated eight cases that dealt with the same issue. So it's important to realize that even though somebody's name is in the case title, they might not be the best person to put a face on the story.
J: Some tips for court reporting would definitely be: know the case and all of the facts of the case, understand legal jargon, understand how the court handles specific types of cases. A grand jury is very different from a regular trial. Where it is in the Supreme Court process can significantly differ.
Knowing and understanding how these cases affect your life is important to understanding your freedoms.
The Supreme Court hands down decisions every year, but not every one makes history. Here are four landmark cases to know:
1. Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
This decision ended segregation in public schools. Prior to this decision, "separate but equal" had been the law of the land. Meaning, segregation was legal as long as the education institutions were on equal footing. However, in Brown v. Board, the Supreme Court overturned its past precedent in saying, "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." Now, segregation of schools by race is unconstitutional.
2. Loving v. Virginia (1967)
Until this case made it to the Supreme Court, interracial marriage wasn't a constitutionally protected right. By 1967, more than 30 states had legalized marriages between different races — but it was still illegal in 16 states. The Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that Americans have the fundamental right to marry anyone of any race under the U.S. Constitution.