Under-the-Table Overruling

45 Pages Posted: 27 Oct 2008 Last revised: 18 Dec 2008

Date Written: October 27, 2008


In this contribution to a Wayne Law Review symposium on the first three years of the Roberts Court, the author normatively assesses the Court's practice of "under-the-table overruling," or "underruling," in high-profile constitutional cases involving abortion, campaign-finance reform, and affirmative action. The Court "underrules" when it renders a decision that undercuts a recent precedent without admitting that it is doing so. The author contends that underruling either is not supported by, or is directly incompatible with, three common rationales for constitutional stare decisis: the noninstrumental rationale, the predictability rationale, and the legitimacy rationale. In particular, while the latter rationale - suggested by the Court's own account of constitutional stare decisis in Planned Parenthood v. Casey - superficially seems to support the practice of underruling, in fact it does not. Casey's association of stare decisis with judicial legitimacy plausibly can be understood to reflect a broader account of the judicial function in constitutional cases, one focusing on the Court's capacity to resolve certain disputes more acceptably than ordinary democratic politics. Underruling may serve this dispute-resolution function by preserving the appearance of the Court's impartiality, although there is reason for doubt. But underruling frustrates the dispute-resolution function in another way: By obscuring the reality of what the Court is doing, it makes meaningful popular participation in constitutional decisionmaking more difficult.

Keywords: legal theory, jurisprudence, constitutional law, Supreme Court, judiciary, judicial review, stare decisis, precedent, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Samuel Alito, FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Gonzales v. Carhart, Parents Involved

Suggested Citation

Peters, Christopher J., Under-the-Table Overruling (October 27, 2008). Wayne Law Review, Vol. 54, No. 1, 2008; Wayne State University Law School Research Paper No. 08-36; Loyola-LA Legal Studies Paper No. 2008-32. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1290711

Christopher J. Peters (Contact Author)

UA School of Law ( email )

150 University Ave.
Akron, OH 44325-2901
United States
330-972-7343 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://law.uakron.edu

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