When the U.S. Supreme Court decides something, does it apply everywhere right away or do we have to wait until laws are passed?

Either way, what part of the Constitution says that, or which laws? Links please.


1 Answer 1


Short Answer

  • Yes, Supreme Court decisions apply everywhere right away. (Unless the decision says it doesn't.)
  • No, we do not have to wait until new laws are passed.


Judicial Review

Marbury v. Madison (1803) established the principle of judicial review under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. This allows the court[s] to interpret laws passed by legislatures. And this is the basis for applying the ruling everywhere (in the U.S.) immediately.

From Marbury at 178:

if a law be in opposition to the Constitution [...] the Court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty. [...] the Constitution of the United States confirms [...] that a law repugnant to the Constitution is void, and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.

Judicial Restraint

(Nominally) courts either interpret or invalidate existing law. In the former case, the law will persist (with the new clarity added by the decision). In the latter, the law will be struck as unconstitutional and, therefore, no longer exist.

  • So in other terms, a ruling from the Supreme Court that invalidates a law goes into application right away. And the default is to allow everything (except when laws prohibit it). So by invalidating a law we really allow something. And we don't have to wait. Thanks!
    – Emmanuel
    Sep 11, 2015 at 20:37
  • @Mowzer: The case you cite, didn't give them the power to negate a Law. "Interpret" here means to refine the Law towards the ideals of the Law. Oct 7, 2015 at 4:56
  • Although there many and notable exceptions... generally, courts tend not to "refine" or "edit" laws to make them constitutional. Courts tend to consider that behavior on par with lawmaking which is a power constitutionally reserved exclusively for the legislature. Therefore, courts tend to only either strike or interpret laws. Again, we can all cite many and notable exceptions. Oct 8, 2015 at 22:42
  • @Emmanuel Some Supreme Court decisions even have "retroactive effect" and other Supreme Court decisions are only effective "prospectively" (e.g. a finding that conduct is unconstitutional in a case where qualified immunity protects the people who acted unconstitutionally). The body of law governing the temporal scope of a U.S. Supreme Court decision is technical and complex even though this answer accurately states the general rule.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 16, 2018 at 23:50
  • The Constitution describes what laws apply, in order of priority. Court rulings are not mentioned anywhere in that list. If a statute is unconstitutional and a court rules it thus, the action by the court would not void the statute but rather recognize that it has always been void (or behave void when e.g. a Constitutional amendment was ratified that contradicted it).
    – supercat
    Jul 31, 2021 at 17:50

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .