When the US Supreme Court Overrules Itself

By: Arabella Stamper, EKU Graduate Assistant

The United States Supreme Court has the power of stare decisis, a judicial doctrine under which the Supreme Court follows previous decisions, rules, or principles made in precedent court cases with similar facts (Murrill, 2018, p. 4).  

Before the Supreme Court decides to overrule itself on any case, there are several factors that are considered first. These factors include quality of reasoning, workability, inconsistency with related facts, and reliance. There may be other factors that the Supreme Court Justices consider when deciding to overrule a case, however, these factors are not explicitly disclosed to the public since some of the considerations are based on the judgement of the Justices. Other factors, such as society, may also influence the Court’s decision.

It is not very often the Supreme Court overrules itself, however, when there is a special justification or strong grounds for overruling a previous case in can happen. By following a precedent case, it allows for courts to make case decisions based on previous cases that are similar in nature. Therefore, the judicial system can be more effective since they did not have to spend too much time on similar cases. For a decision to be overruled a majority of the Justices must vote to overrule the subsequent decision. A Supreme Court decision could be overruled by a constitutional amendment, but this approach is very difficult to achieve.

Quality of reasoning is the first factor considered by the Justices when they analyze the justifications for whether to affirm or overrule a previous Court’s decision. If the Court disagrees with a previous case decision, then the Supreme Court can overrule the precedent. The next factor evaluated is workability, which considers if and how lower courts could implement the ruling of the case. Then there are inconsistencies with related decision. This means that previous rulings may conflict with later rulings. Therefore, the Supreme Court could overrule previous rulings to help balance the line of precedent. There may also be a changed understanding of relevant facts that influences if the Court will overrule a previous ruling. These understandings may be due to influences from society or a change in the economic climate. The last known factor that influences whether the Supreme Court will overrule a previous court decision is the reliance. Reliance is considered since the decision of the Supreme Court could inflict or harm certain parties if a case were overruled. Reliance can be influenced by economic, societal, and government factors.


Murrill, B. J. The Supreme Court’s Overruling of Constitutional Precedent, The Supreme Court’s Overruling of Constitutional Precedent (2018). Retrieved from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45319.pdf

Published on December 10, 2019