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The Worst Supreme Court Decisions of All Time

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Updated by Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

There's a lot of somber clout around the nine cloaked figures of the Highest Court in the Land. The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court get a lot of respect, deference, and press — and for good reason. It's neither an easy job to get nor an easy one to do. Every once in a while, the Supreme Court will decide a case that has widespread social and political impact, striking down discriminatory laws, upholding cherished institutions, and protecting individual liberties. With all the gravitas around these majestic guardians of the Constitution, it's sometimes easy to forget that they're also human, and smart as they are, they aren't always infallible.

Sometimes, they stumble through decisions like a baby panda on roller skates, leaving legal scholars with whiplash and the rest of us questioning the value of lifetime appointments. Not all Supreme Court opinions are great. Most are boring, technical, and of little import to the general public. And some are downright terrible. For every Brown v. Board, there's a Buck v. Bell. Indeed, there are enough horrendous SCOTUS opinions to fill a book — certainly a blog post. The craziest part is that many of the Court's worst decisions still stand as good law.

Buckle up as we take you on a speed round of nine of the court's biggest mistakes and most controversial opinions of all time.

1. Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857): Oh, the dreaded Dred. The oldest case on our list is also coincidentally the worst. There may be disagreement about the other worst-ever SCOTUS, but nobody disagrees that this one is hands-down the worst Supreme Court decision ever. Dred Scott held that African Americans, whether free men or slaves, could not be considered American citizens. The ruling undid the Missouri Compromise, barred laws that would free slaves, and all but guaranteed that there would be no political solution to slavery. The opinion even included a ridiculous "parade of horribles" that would appear if Scott were recognized as a citizen, unspeakable scenarios like African Americans being able to vacation, hold public meetings, and exercise their free speech rights.

The 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution overturned the 1857 Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford. The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, and the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to all people born in the United States.

2. The Civil Rights Cases of 1883

These were five consolidated cases challenging the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations like hotels, restaurants, and transportation. In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment so narrowly that it struck down the Act, arguing that it could not regulate private businesses. This decision effectively ushered in the Jim Crow era of legalized racial segregation.

It would take over 80 years for the Court to switch course, allowing for the government protection of civil rights in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S. — this time under the Commerce Clause.

3. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): You've probably heard of the infamous concept of “separate but equal." This decision upheld racial segregation under the "separate but equal" doctrine. This flawed logic, despite supposedly guaranteeing equal facilities for both races, inherently implied Black inferiority and violated the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Plessy's legacy is one of perpetuating Jim Crow laws, psychological harm to Black Americans, and impeding racial progress for decades.

Only in 1954 did Brown v. Board of Education finally overturn Plessy and dismantle its segregationist legacy, a stark reminder of the dangers of legalized discrimination and the ongoing fight for a truly just and equitable society.

4. Lochner v. New York (1905): This case ignited a fiery debate for protecting employer interests over worker welfare, expanding judicial power through "substantive due process," and paving the way for the "Lochner era" of striking down progressive laws. Here, SCOTUS struck down a New York law limiting bakery work hours to 10 hours a day, finding an implicit "liberty of contract" in the Due Process Clause.

Though overruled, its legacy sparks ongoing discussions about balancing economic liberty with worker protection, interpreting fundamental rights, and the Court's cautious power to influence public policy in a changing society.

5. Buck v. Bell (1927): "Eugenics? Yes, please!" the Court declared in this terrible decision. In an 8-1 decision written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Court upheld the forced sterilization of those with intellectual disabilities "for the protection and health of the state." Justice Holmes ruled that "society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind" and ended the opinion by declaring that "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Buck v. Bell was never overturned! Not formally, anyway. The decision did lose a lot of strength after Skinner v. Oklahoma, which shifted focus to individuals' fundamental right to procreate, undermining the eugenics argument and leading to the practice's decline. Though Buck v. Bell remains on the books, its authority is severely weakened and it's no longer considered good law.

6. Korematsu v. United States (1944): Here, the Supreme Court upheld the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, finding that the need to protect against espionage outweighed the individual rights of American citizens. In a cruel and ironic twist, this was also the first time the Court applied what is called “strict scrutiny" to racial discrimination by the U.S. government, belying the idea that strict scrutiny is "strict in theory, fatal in fact."

Technically, Korematsu was never overturned by SCOTUS. However, its legitimacy has been severely undermined and it is no longer considered good law for several reasons. In 1983, a federal court judge overturned Korematsu's original conviction, acknowledging government suppression of evidence and racial prejudice in the decision. In 2018, Chief Justice Roberts strongly rebuked the Korematsu decision in the Trump v. Hawaii case, calling it "gravely wrong" and stating it has "no place in law under the Constitution." Thus, thankfully, Korematsu has lost its practical authority and is highly unlikely to be used as precedent in future cases due to its discredited foundation and inconsistent history.

7. Bowers v. Hardwick (1986): This decision upheld a discriminatory Georgia sodomy statute that criminalized sexually active gay and lesbian relationships. As Justice Harry Blackmun noted in his dissent, the majority opinion displayed "an almost obsessive focus on homosexual activity."

The decision was inconsistent with precedent because it denied a fundamental right to privacy for consenting adults engaging in private sexual conduct, even though the Court had previously recognized privacy rights in cases like Griswold v. Connecticut (contraception) and Roe v. Wade (abortion). It invoked the slippery slope argument, suggesting that recognizing a right to homosexual sodomy would lead to the legalization of other "immoral" acts, which later proved unfounded. All this left many wondering where the line between permissible and non-permissible private acts could be drawn. The majority opinion also relied on outdated notions of morality and failed to provide a compelling legal basis for criminalizing private, consensual acts.

Fortunately, Bowers was overruled in 2003 by Lawrence v. Texas, which recognized a fundamental right to privacy for all consenting adults engaging in private sexual conduct, regardless of their sexual orientation. This was a major victory for LGBTQ+ rights and helped pave the way for future advancements, including marriage equality.

8. Bush v. Gore (2000): Shaping the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, this remains one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions in American history for several reasons. The razor-thin margin by which George Bush won, along with discrepancies in ballot counting in Florida and concerns about "hanging chads," raised allegations of voter disenfranchisement and fueled accusations of unfairness. SCOTUS's intervention in the election process was highly unusual and unprecedented, raising concerns about judicial overreach and undermining the public's confidence in the democratic process. Furthermore, the 5-4 decision along ideological lines, with conservative justices siding with Bush and liberal justices supporting Gore, ignited partisan tensions and accusations of political bias. This further amplified the controversy and deepened the public divide. The Republican majority stopped the recount, raising potential violations of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and arguing that different standards for counting votes across counties could unfairly disenfranchise voters. However, critics argued that stopping the recounts altogether disproportionately affected Gore's supporters in those counties.

The decision was never overturned, and its aftermath potentially set a precedent for future involvement of the Supreme Court in close elections. However, the Equal Protection holding in Bush v. Gore has never been cited as precedent, and the majority opinion specifically warned in the decision that “[o]ur consideration is limited to the present circumstances," discouraging future courts from relying on any legal holding in the decision.

9. Citizens United v. FEC (2010): Another, more recent case about presidential elections, Citizens United is a household name to this day due to ongoing controversy. It held that political donations are speech protected by the First Amendment, opening the floodgates to unlimited personal and corporate donations to "super PACs." Critics argue this grants enormous influence to wealthy special interests and corporations, effectively drowning out the voices of everyday citizens and giving undue power to a select few. Supporters of the decision argue it's a victory for free speech, protecting the right of corporations and individuals to express their political views. They see limitations on campaign spending as censorship and believe increased money in politics doesn't inherently lead to corruption. Critics counter that free speech shouldn't translate to unfettered financial influence in elections, arguing it undermines democratic principles and fair representation.

The effects of Citizens United are still unfolding, but it's already contributed to increased polarization in American politics, a focus on fundraising over policy discussions, and growing public distrust in democratic institutions.

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