Using its power to legislate, Congress can overrule Supreme Court interpretations of federal law by rewriting the law.
Beginning with its earliest decisions, the Supreme Court created controversy and occasionally prompted Congress to overturn its decisions. Under the Constitution, Congress can override federal court decisions through constitutional amendment or by rewriting a piece of legislation.
Many of the Court’s decisions involve the interpretation of federal law and its application to legal disputes. These interpretative powers provide the Court with some ability to legislate by defining the meaning of words in a piece of legislation, producing conflict with Congress. Over two hundred years of Court history, such conflict has led to approximately two hundred laws being passed in order to overturn a Court decision.
During the first fifty years of the Court’s existence, the justices engaged in little interpretation of federal law. It was not until the 1850’s that Congress became involved in attempting to reverse a Court decision. Congress’s action came in Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Co.
After losing before the Court, the bridge owners appealed to Congress. In response, legislation was passed declaring that the bridge was a legal structure and necessary for the transportation of the mails. This law was challenged before the Court. In Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Co.
However, overturning a Court decision does not always require that Congress pass legislation. Because the Court depends on Congress for funding and political support of its decisions, the threat of legislation to overturn a Court ruling can cause the justices to change their minds. In Watkins v. United States
The congressional response to Watkins came in the form of the Jenner bill. Senator William F. Jenner’s proposed legislation allowed committee chairpersons to determine the scope of a congressional investigation. The wording implicitly overruled Watkins. Though the Jenner bill did not pass the Senate, the Court received Congress’s political message. In Barenblatt v. United States
After the 1950’s, Congress and the Court became more involved in conflict over constitutional interpretation and the meaning of federal legislation. With the Court creating new constitutional interpretations, Congress found itself in conflict with the justices. The ruling in Miranda v. Arizona
Many of the liberal civil rights provisions passed during the 1960’s were scrutinized by the conservative Supreme Court appointees of Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Their conservative interpretations of the law prompted Congress to legislate in order to overturn those decisions. One such ruling was General Electric v. Gilbert
The Court under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist reinterpreted the Constitution and federal law, prompting a flurry of legislation to overturn Court decisions. Three decisions, Patterson v. MacLean Credit Union
The Court’s decision in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith
Throughout the Court’s history, congressional disagreement with the justices’ decisions has prompted legislative action. As the Court interprets the law, Congress is likely to find it necessary at times to overrule those interpretations.
Abraham, Henry. The Judicial Process. Cambridge, England: Oxford University Press, 1993. Murphy, Walter. Congress and the Court. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962. Swisher, Carl. The Taney Period. New York: Macmillan, 1974.
Barenblatt v. United States
Boerne v. Flores
Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith
Martin v. Wilks
Miranda v. Arizona
Patterson v. McLean Credit Union
Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Co.
Reversals of Court decisions by amendment
Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio
Watkins v. United States