The Worst Supreme Court Decisions

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Jon Roland

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Oct 12, 2014, 6:14:13 PM10/12/14
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This is my answer to a question posed on a list for legal academics.

I have collected milestone Supreme Court cases at http://www.constitution.org/ussc/ussc_milestones.xls which includes most of the worst decisions. I would, for pedagogical purposes, pick the following:

  1. McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 US 316 (1819). For the dictum on the expansive interpretation of the Commerce and Necessary clauses that opened the way for many other violations of original meaning.
  2. Barron v. Baltimore, 32 US 243 (1833). Incorrectly held that the Bill of Rights did not extend the jurisdiction of federal courts to cases between a citizen and his state. Needed 14th Amendment to overturn it.
  3. Games v. Dunn, 39 US 322 (1840). Incorrectly held that only the judge, not the jury, could judge the law.
  4. Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 US 393 (1857). Incorrectly held that a Black could not be a citizen, and that the term "citizen" in Art. III did not include resident persons. Needed 14th Amendment to overturn it.
  5. Knox v. Lee, 79 US 457 (1871). Incorrectly allowed Congress to define legal tender on state territory, allowing fiat currency. Error extended by Julliard v. Greenman, 110 US 421 (1884).
  6. Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 US 36 (1871). In dictum created precedent for excluding Privileges or Immunities Clause from the 14th Amendment.
  7. Kohl v. U.S., 91 US 367 (1875). Incorrectly extended federal eminent domain power to federal government over state territory, with the consent of the state legislature.
  8. Hurtado v. California, 110 US 516 (1884). First of many cases that refused to "incorporate" Bill of Rights to jurisdiction over cases between a citizen and his state.
  9. In re Neagle, 135 US 1 (1890). Made federal actors immune from prosecution for violation of state laws.
  10. Sparf & Hansen v. U.S., 156 US 51 (1895). Incorrectly confirmed exclusion of arguments on law from the hearing of a jury.
  11. Selective Draft Law Cases, 245 US 366 (1918). Incorrectly conferred power to conscript soldiers.
  12. Missouri v. Holland, 252 US 416 (1920). Incorrectly allowed Congress to extend its constitutional powers through a treaty with a foreign nation.
  13. Frothingham v. Mellon, 262 US 447 (1923). Incorrectly restricted standing to sue to those personally and particularly injured, blocking private prosecution of public rights.
  14. U.S. v. Butler, 297 US 1 91936). Incorrectly held that the Welfare Clause was a broad grant of power, and not just a restriction on the power to tax and spend.
  15. U.S. v. Darby, 312 US 100 (1941). Incorrectly extended interpretation of Commerce Clause and sustained power to criminally prosecute under it.
  16. Wickard v. Filburn, 317 US 111 (1942). Conferred broad criminal powers to Congress over anything with a substantial effect" on "commerce".
  17. NFIB v. Sibelius, 567 US ___ (2012). Incorrectly held that the power to tax includes the power to tax inactivity.

-- Jon

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