Reversals of Court decisions by Congress

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.Separation of powers Because the amendment process requires supermajorities of both houses of Congress and the state legislatures, most overturning of Court decisions involves ordinary 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.

The Congress Reaction

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.[case]Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Co.[Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Co.] (1852). The case centered on whether the Wheeling Bridge constituted an obstruction to interstate commerce. In its decision, the Court ruled the bridge was an obstruction and ordered that the owner either raise or remove it.

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.[case]Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Co.[Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Co.] (1856), the Court upheld the law as a constitutional congressional reversal of a Court decision.

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[case]Watkins v. United States[Watkins v. United States] (1957), the Court limited Congress’s investigatory powers.Congressional power of investigation The justices’ main target was the House Un-American Activities Committee. According to the Court, the committee’s investigation of communists in labor unions exceeded the scope of its charter.

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[case]Barenblatt v. United States[Barenblatt v. United States](1959), the Court reversed itself on Watkins, allowing Congress greater power in defining its own investigations.

Constitutional Conflicts

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[case]Miranda v. Arizona[Miranda v. Arizona] (1966) required police officers to read suspects their rights in order to prevent coerced confessions. Congress reacted with the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets ActOmnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act in which federal courts were allowed to ignore Miranda warnings and create their own standards for coerced confessions. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. Dickerson[case]Dickerson, United States v.[Dickerson, United States v.] (1999) ruled that the congressional act overruled Miranda and that federal law enforcement officials were not required to read suspects their rights.

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[case]General Electric v. Gilbert[General Electric v. Gilbert] (1976), in which the Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against gender discrimination in employment did not forbid discrimination against pregnant workers. Congress responded with the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act,Pregnancy Discrimination Act specifically overruling the Gilbert decision by making pregnancy protected under the civil rights law.

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[case]Patterson v. MacLean Credit Union[Patterson v. MacLean Credit Union] (1988), Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio[case]Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio[Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio] (1989), and Martin v. Wilks[case]Martin v. Wilks[Martin v. Wilks] (1989) made it more difficult for claimants in racial discrimination cases to prove their case. In response, Congress passed the 1991 Civil Rights Act of 1991Civil Rights Act, which made it easier to prove race discrimination at the workplace.

The Court’s decision in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith[case]Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith[Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith] (1990), produced more congressional legislation. In Smith, the Court ruled that the free exercise clause did not apply to general applicable laws that only incidentally restricted religious freedoms. In 1993 Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,Religious Freedom Restoration Act which required government to show a compelling interest for restricting any religious belief or practice. This overruled the Court’s standard in Smith. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was itself challenged in Court in the case of Boerne v. Flores[case]Boerne v. Flores[Boerne v. Flores] (1997). In Boerne, the Court struck down the act as an unconstitutional use of congressional power to overturn a judicial decision. According to the Court, in overturning its decision in Smith, Congress had changed the meaning of the free exercise clause, a power reserved for the courts.

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.

Further Reading

  • 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