Each year, the United States Supreme Court rules on about 80 decisions. Given the complexity of some of these cases, it’s inevitable that sometimes, the wrong decisions are made (to put it mildly). Looking back over the past 230 years of the Supreme Court’s history, there’re a few decisions that truly make the mind boggle. Here, we take a look at 10 of the very worst Supreme Court decisions ever made.
10. Exxon Shipping Co. v. Baker (2008)
You expect the party responsible for a major oil spill to feel the full force of the law. Not so. After years of litigation, Exxon Shipping was finally found guilty of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Despite the verdict being accompanied by a $5 billion fine in damages, Exxon managed to get away with paying just $500 million after the Supreme Court ruled they should not be held liable for punitive damages in excess of compensatory ones. Within two days of the decision, Exxon’s stock jumped $23 billion; a rather unfair reward for causing one of the biggest environmental disasters in history.
9. Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918)
By the 2nd decade of the 20th century, the Supreme Court had already decided the power of government extended to enforcing restrictions on gambling and other such vices. What it would not admit, however, was that the government had any right in deciding whether children should be put to work in mines and industry. That, according to the case of Hammer v. Dagenhart, was strictly a matter for the individual states to decide.
8. Bowers v. Hardwick (1986)
In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld the state of Georgia’s decision to criminalize gay and lesbian sexual activity. One of the few dissenters, Justice Harry Blackmun, reported “an almost obsessive focus on homosexual activity” during the ruling, which was eventually overturned by Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 (although some states still practice anti-sodomy laws, seemingly oblivious to their unconstitutional nature).
7. Schenck v. United States (1919)
“Words which, ordinarily and in many places, would be within the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment, may become subject to prohibition when of such a nature and used in such circumstances as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils which Congress has a right to prevent.” So said Justice Oliver Wendell in 1919 in what would be the first of several cases to impose legal limitations on the right to free speech.
6. In the Civil Rights Cases (1883)
In 1875, the US made a giant leap forward on the road to equality with the Civil Rights Act. Less than 10 years later, it took an equally giant leap backward when the Supreme Court ruled that racial discrimination and segregation in public areas such as hotels, railroads, and restaurants was just dandy, and in no way unconstitutional. The ruling was made all the worse by its facilitation of the egregious Jim Crow laws that provided legal codification to previously informal or private practices.
5. The Slaughter-House Cases (1873)
In theory, the 14th amendment was intended to protect former slaves from discriminatory laws passed by individual states. In practice, its ability to enforce the principle that “no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States” was severely hampered by the 1873 ruling that declared the “privileges and immunities of citizens” ran only to what was specifically outlined in the constitution (which basically gave citizens the right to access waterways, run for federal office, and be protected while at sea). Far more practical considerations like the protection of civil rights and economic freedoms were not, apparently, the concern of legislature.
4. Buck v. Bell (1927)
During World War II, the world was in an uproar at the forced sterilization policies carried out by the Nazis. What many weren’t aware of (or perhaps just didn’t want to acknowledge) was that the US had been at it for years. In 1927, the supreme court decided that forced sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities was a-ok, with Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes making the nauseating comment “society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
3. Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
Racism may still be very much extant today, but it’s nothing compared to the scale of institutionalized racism that dominated the US’s past. In 1857, the supreme court ruled 7-3 that black Americans, regardless of whether they were in slavery or free, could not be considered citizens, and could not claim the same rights as citizens in court. 8 years and one very blood civil war later, the ruling was finally overturned by the addition of the 13th and 14th amendments.
2. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
If Dred Scott v. Sandford hadn’t already done a good enough job of demonstrating the Supreme Court’s sometimes shady decision making, Plessy V Ferguson certainly does. Almost ten years after the Supreme Court decided that black American’s had no standing in court, it added insult to injury by upholding the state of Louisiana’s decision to segregate public facilities according to race. The worse part? It would take another 58 years before the decision was finally overturned with the case of Brown v Board of Education.
1. Korematsu v. United States (1944)
During World War II, 100,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly detained in internment camps under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. The order applied regardless of citizenship, with the end result that fully nationalized, 2nd generation American citizens were detained against their will for the duration of the war. When Fred Korematsu, a 2nd generation American Japanese citizen who’d been born and raised in the US, challenged the order, the supreme court ruled against him. While we may shake our heads in wonder at their decision, the most frightening part of the tale is that most judges think the same ruling would as likely apply today as it did then. “You are kidding yourself if you think the same thing will not happen again” Justice Antonin Scalia has said, drawing on that old axiom “Inter arma enim silent leges … Laws are muted in times of war”.