Does the Supreme Court ever reverse its decisions?

Sandra Day O'Connor, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (retired), explains the rare instances in which the court has reversed itself.


Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. The court meets regularly in the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. Its main duty is to determine the legality of conduct at all levels of government—federal, state, and local—as measured either by the Constitution of the United States or by other laws passed by Congress. Much of the court's work involves the interpretation of general legal rules and the application of these rules to specific cases.


Original and appellate jurisdiction. The Constitution gives the Supreme Court two types of authority: (1)original jurisdiction and (2) appellate jurisdiction. The court has original jurisdiction in cases affecting ambassadors or other representatives of foreign countries and in cases in which a state is one of the parties. These cases go directly to the Supreme Court, though they make up only a small part of the court's workload.

Most of the work of the court comes from its appellate jurisdiction, which is its authority to confirm or reverse lower court decisions. Most Supreme Court cases come from the federal courts of appeals and the highest state courts. The courts of appeals normally review federal district court decisions before the Supreme Court does. In a few cases, the Supreme Court may review the decisions of federal district courts or of lower state courts. The Supreme Court also reviews the decisions of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, a specialized court, and of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico.


The Supreme Court decides which of the cases under its appellate jurisdiction it will review. Because it cannot possibly review all of the cases brought before it, it selects the ones it considers most important or the ones where earlier rulings have left confusion about the law.


For more information about Supreme Court, visit World Book Online Encyclopedia.


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