Three Supreme Court 'Failures' and a Story of Supreme Court Success

56 Pages Posted: 11 Apr 2016 Last revised: 27 May 2016

See all articles by Corinna Lain

Corinna Lain

University of Richmond - School of Law

Date Written: April 6, 2016


Plessy v. Ferguson. Buck v. Bell. Korematsu v. United States. Together, these three decisions legitimated ‘separate but equal,’ sanctioned the forced sterilization of thousands, and ratified the removal of Japanese Americans from their homes during World War II. By Erwin Chemerinsky’s measure in The Case Against the Supreme Court, all three are Supreme Court failures — cases in which the Court should have protected vulnerable minorities, but failed to do so. Considered in historical context, however, a dramatically different impression of these cases, and the Supreme Court that decided them, emerges. In two of the cases — Plessy and Buck — the Court’s ruling reflected the progressive view at the time, and in the third — Korematsu — the extralegal context of the case was strong enough to draw the support of Justices Black and Douglas, two of the Court’s most staunch civil liberties defenders. Plessy, Buck, and Korematsu are potent reminders of how historical context can constrain the Supreme Court’s proclivity to protect, limiting what the Court can realistically do. But this is not to say that an overinflated view of the Court’s protective capacity is all bad. However historically inaccurate, the Supreme Court’s image as a countermajoritarian hero also has a curious upside, setting in motion forces that can, over time, enable and inspire the Court’s protection. In the end, our expectations of the Supreme Court as a countermajoritarian savior both give rise to a rhetoric of failure and pave the way for future protection. What is vastly underappreciated is the connection between the two — how within the rhetoric of failure lies a larger, and largely untold, story of Supreme Court success.

Keywords: Supreme Court Decision Making, Role of Judicial Review

Suggested Citation

Lain, Corinna, Three Supreme Court 'Failures' and a Story of Supreme Court Success (April 6, 2016). Vanderbilt Law Review, Vol. 69, 2016. Available at SSRN:

Corinna Lain (Contact Author)

University of Richmond - School of Law ( email )

28 Westhampton Way
Richmond, VA 23173
United States

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