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ArtIII.S1.7.1 Overview of Supreme Court Rulings

Article III, Section 1:

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

Along with the Constitution and federal statutes, rulings of the Supreme Court are a key source of the law of the United States. In the view of many judges and commentators, Supreme Court decisions do not make law, which is the province of the Legislative Branch, but instead interpret and apply the Constitution and statutes.1 Chief Justice John Marshall famously stated in the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison, “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” 2 Over two centuries later, when nominated to be Chief Justice, then-Judge John Roberts likened the role of a Justice to the role of a baseball umpire who does not make the rules or play the game but instead simply applies the rules “to call balls and strikes.” 3

Nonetheless, as a practical matter, Supreme Court decisions may change the legal landscape by resolving open legal questions, striking down unconstitutional laws or government actions, or overruling prior judicial decisions. Court-created legal doctrines determine the scope and effect of those changes. For instance, the doctrine of stare decisis counsels against the Court overruling its past decisions absent special justification to depart from precedent.4 In addition, a number of Supreme Court cases have addressed the extent to which Court decisions announcing new rules of law apply retroactively.5

See, e.g., Linkletter v. Walker, 381 U.S. 618, 622–23 (1965) (quoting 1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries 69) (stating that, at common law, “the duty of the court was not to ‘pronounce a new law, but to maintain and expound the old one’” ); but see, e.g., Geoffrey C. Hazard Jr., The Supreme Court as a Legislature, 64 Cornell L. Rev. 1 (1978). back
5 U.S. 137, 177 (1803). back
Confirmation Hearing on the Nomination of John G. Roberts, Jr. to be Chief Justice of the United States: Hearings before the S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 109th Cong. (2005). back
See ArtIII.S1.7.2.2 Stare Decisis Doctrine Generally. back
See ArtIII.S1.7.3.1 Overview of Retroactivity of Supreme Court Decisions. back