As the highest court in our nation, the United States Supreme Court ultimately makes many a final decision in court cases that tackle national law. This powerful system was put in place alongside the Constitution in 1789 and has since helped shape and create many of the laws that we know and follow today.
Although this respected conglomerate of nine powerful judges have made landmark decisions involving our law, the justices aren’t infallible and their decisions aren’t necessarily permanent. Just like when we decide on a light salad for lunch, but later wish we had those burgers and fries instead, the Supreme Court justices often change their minds as well.
Believe it or not, this isn’t entirely uncommon. Over the past 200 years, there have been over 300 Supreme Court cases that have been overturned. More recently, about 60 cases have been overturned in the last 46 years, often due to the shifts in political climate or societal views, especially surrounding race and gender.
Of those hundreds of cases that have been overruled, there are a few standout cases that will pique your interest. Check out five intriguing Supreme Court cases that were later overturned in fa vor of, thankfully, better decisions.
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) & Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
If you took any U.S. history class, you likely have vivid memories of the phrase “separate but equal”. In case you need a little refresher, this objectively awful Supreme Court decision was brought to the nation’s highest court in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The recent ratification of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution had granted black Americans the same rights as white American citizens. However, states, especially in the South, were still restricting black Americans through the enforcement of separate sections at water fountains, bathrooms, buses, and other public facilities.
As a part of the “Citizens’ Committee” of New Orleans—a civil rights group made up of African Americans, whites, and Creoles—Homer Plessy was chosen to test these restrictive laws in hopes that the Supreme Court would interfere and remove them. The Citizens’ Committee then concocted a plan that would purposely get Plessy arrested, which they would use to gain the attention of the nation and the Supreme Court.
Plessy was told to buy a ticket for a railroad and purposely sit in the white section of the car. Plessy was 1/8 black, which at the time, was seen as fully being black. Plessy, who could “pass” for white, actually told the conductor that he was 7/8 white. Upon hearing this, the conductor asked Plessy to move to the black section. When he refused, a private investigator hired by the Committee arrested Plessy to ensure that he would be charged with violating Louisiana’s Separate Car Act rather than some other unrelated violation.
When Plessy’s case was first taken to court, Judge John Howard Ferguson of the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled against Plessy in 1892. The Committee, who had planned on this occurrence, brought the case next in front of the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, in the interim, the Supreme Court’s makeup had changed, and the judges were much more segregationist than when the plan was hatched. Regardless, the Committee decided to pursue the Supreme Court ruling–which ended in the 1896 ruling that “separate but equal” institutions did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.
The decision was a wet bandaid on the larger issue of racism that was extremely prevalent after the Civil War. Black facilities that were supposedly the “same quality” as white facilities were often times kept in poorer condition and were frequently difficult or even impossible to access. This would also trickle into black schools in the country which the Board of Education barely funded.
The words “separate but equal” would ring in the ears of American citizens for generations until 1954. In the early 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was tirelessly filing lawsuits in order to eradicate segregation laws in public schools across the country. Their most famous case came to them after Oliver Brown filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas in 1951.
When Brown’s daughter Linda was getting ready to start elementary school, she was denied access to Topeka’s all-white schools. In the lawsuit, Brown stated that the schools for black children were not up to par with white schools, which in turn violated the “equal protection clause” in the Fourteenth Amendment. After bringing the case to the U.S. District Court in Kansas, the court agreed with Brown’s statements, but still ruled in favor of the “separate but equal” clause established in Plessy v. Ferguson.
After similar cases started to pile up, the Supreme Court could no longer avoid the issue and weighed in on the topic. Finally in 1954, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation laws were unconstitutional, and subsequently weakened the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Technically, no single decision overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, but the Brown case and others weakened its standing to such a degree that it is considered functionally overturned.
Wolf v. Colorado (1949) & Mapp v. Ohio (1961)
These important cases in Supreme Court history established whether or not illegally acquired evidence can be used in court. This argument started in 1949 when authorities raided Dr. Julius Wolf’s office after one of his former patients reported that he had performed illegal abortions in his clinic.
The police searched the place without a warrant and found an appointment book listing all of Wolf’s previous patients. After getting in contact with the women in the book, they too had admitted they received abortions under Wolf. When the book was used as evidence in court, Wolf argued that its usage violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment which protects all U.S. citizens from illegal searches from authorities.
Wolf’s case was eventually brought to the Supreme Court where they had to analyze the lengths of the Fourth Amendment. Since Wolf was already breaking the law, did it really matter whether or not the book was illegally obtained? The Supreme Court took this into account and ultimately decided that illegally obtained evidence can hold weight in trial and should not be dismissed. Despite this ruling, warrants were still necessary for police searches.
However, this decision would be overturned in 1961 after another illegal police search in Ohio. This time, the authorities raided Dollree Mapp’s home after she was suspected of housing a coworker, accused of bombing a rival racketeer.
Once the police gained access to the woman’s apartment, they found the man in question–and a stash or pornographic books. They confiscated the material and convicted her of obscenity since the pornography found in the home violated Ohio obscenity laws.
According Mapp’s account, a piece of paper was waved in her face, and that was it. The police never produced a real warrant, and therefore her rights under the Fourth Amendment were violated.
This case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court where six justices decided to backtrack on the court’s earlier decision in 1949 during Wolf v. Colorado. This stated that all illegally acquired evidence, no matter how relevant to a case, would not be admissible during a trial.
Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) & Lawrence v. Texas (2003)
To think that less than 40 years ago the Supreme Court was allowing states to tell people how to get it on–or not–in the bedroom. Since 2003, this country, and the Supreme Court have come a long way.
The Bowers case began in 1982, when Atlanta police officer Keith Torick issued Michael Hardwick a citation for public drinking. Hardwick missed his original court date due to a clerical error, but quickly paid his fine. Officer Torrick, who had gotten a warrant for Hardwick’s arrest, showed up at Hardwick’s house three weeks after the man had paid his fine to serve the invalid warrant and arrest him.
Torrick entered Hardwick’s home and went into his bedroom, where he saw Hardwick and an unnamed man engaging in sexual acts. After Hardwick became angry and threatened to have the officer fired for entering his home without permission, Torrick arrested both men for sodomy. One could only wonder how that conversation went down.
Although the case was dropped by District Attorney Lewis Slaton, Hardwick and lawyers filed a case to ask that the sodomy law be declared unconstitutional, as it violated the right to privacy. The case was tossed out, so Hardwick appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed the decision, stating that the sodomy law was unconstitutional. From there, the case was brought to the Supreme Court.
The Court ruled that the Constitution did not protect sodomy, and therefore individual states could make their own laws on the subject, regardless of the privacy argument.
This decision would remain in place until 2003. Responding a weapon disturbance call, Houston authorities entered John Lawrence’s home. Similarly to Hardwick’s case, the police caught him having sex with another man, and they were arrested for violating Texas’s “Homosexual Conduct” law.
The case was brought to the Texas’s Court of Appeals, where they ruled that the law was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment which protects the rights of all citizens.
The case made its way to the Supreme Court where they ruled in favor of Lawrence. After the decision, the Supreme Court overturned its earlier decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, and prohibited the creation of anti-sodomy laws throughout the country.
What differentiated the Lawrence case from Bowers v. Hardwick is the fact that Texas’s law specifically targeted gay men—sodomy between heterosexual couples wasn’t criminalized. Since the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal protection for all citizens, this would inherently extend to gay men.
Olmstead v. United States (1928) & Katz v. United States (1967)
Sometimes you say things over the phone that you would hope no one but your conversational partner will hear. But not to worry! Unless you’re a wanted criminal or suspect, the FBI really has no reason to listen in on your embarrassing phone call about your sloppy night out.
This wasn’t always the case though. While wiretapping with court approval is legal in the United States, there was a time where police could do freely do it any time and anywhere. This was decided in 1928 in Olmstead v. United States when Roy Olmstead was convicted by police for bootlegging (selling alcohol during Prohibition) after listening in on his phone calls.
Olmstead had been suspected of bootlegging for a while, and had even been booted off the police force for selling liquor in 1920, but the police needed solid evidence of his current rum-running. Without court approval, they wiretapped his phone and got the evidence they needed to lock him up. However, Olmstead wouldn’t go down without a fight, bringing the case to the Supreme Court and claiming that the police violated his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the authorities, stating that the Fifth Amendment only protected citizens who were forcibly or illegally made to commit a crime. Olmstead and his buyers were all voluntarily having these conversations via phone, and therefore it was free game for police to tap into a phone line if they suspected illegal activity.
In addition to this, the Fourth Amendment protects against illegal searches and seizures by police. At the time, wiretapping apparently did not fall under this category; Olmstead’s argument was thrown out the window.
This decision would be put into contention again almost 30 years later in 1967. Charles Katz was suspected of participating in illegal activity. The police wiretapped a public pay phone that Katz frequently used to discuss illegal gambling information.
Once they had enough evidence, the authorities arrested Katz and used the recordings as evidence in court. Katz appealed the case, on the basis that tapping a public pay phone was in violation of citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights.
This case was brought in front of the Supreme Court where they had to make a tough call. Katz was guilty of his crime, but did the Fourth Amendment protect against wiretapping? In an almost unanimous decision, the Supreme Court sided with Katz, writing their opinion that his conversations at a public payphone were under the protection of the Fourth Amendment.
The Supreme Court overturned its earlier decision in Olmstead v. United States by making it mandatory for authorities to obtain court approval for wiretaps on public phones. Today, police first need to prove to a court that there is probable cause before using a wiretap to discover a crime.
Roth v. United States (1957) & Miller v. California (1973)
At one point in Supreme Court history, the prestigious group of justices had to define exactly what porn was, and whether or not refusing to distribute such materials via mail would infringe on the First Amendment rights of sellers. Just another day in the job.
This can of worms was first opened in 1957 when Samuel Roth, the owner of a book-selling business in New York, was convicted of violating obscenity laws after he distributed pornographic materials through mail. Roth fought against the case, stating that his First Amendment rights which protected his freedom of speech were being infringed.
When the case reached the Supreme Court, the justices had to weigh in on the matter and discuss whether or not the authorities were violating Roth’s rights. After much debate, the Supreme Court ultimately decided that since pornography (which they didn’t really define in this case) didn’t have any social value, it couldn’t technically be protected by the First Amendment.
However, a similar case would resurface in 1973 involving Marvin Miller and the state of California. Miller was in charge of a massive mailing campaign to advertise the sale of adult books and material at his business. California residents who received these notices complained to authorities about the material, who eventually arrested Miller for violating California’s obscenity laws.
Yet again, the Supreme Court were left to decide on this case after Miller pulled the First Amendment rights card. In a very close 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court again stood its ground on the former decision, but did overturn certain clauses in the former Roth v. United States case.
Instead of criminalizing the mail distribution and publication of any and all lewd material, the Supreme Court created a three guideline “Miller Test” that would define obscene material.
The three basic guidelines are: (1) whether “the average person” would find that the material appeals to sexual interests, (2) whether the material explicitly depicts or describes, “in an offensive way,” sexual actions, and (3) whether the work lacked any sort of “literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
While Miller didn’t fully get away with it, he at least got a test named after him.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons