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Edited to add this summary: What happens if the Supreme Court issues a ruling that is obviously unconstitutional, such as interpreting a clause to mean something no reasonable person would believe it means, or ruling based on a nonexistent article?


Suppose John Doe says "Dogs are the best pets ever." He is (for some reason) prosecuted for this. He is convicted, and appeals the decision, and keeps being convicted and appealing the decisions until he reaches the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court rules that Article XVII Section 381 Clause 29 of the Constitution clearly states that cats are better than dogs, and Clause 30 says that anyone who says dogs are better must be imprisoned for at least 20 years, and Clause 31 says Clauses 30 and 31 override all other parts of the Constitution, including the First Amendment, and therefore John Doe is guilty and must go to prison. The President refuses to pardon him. What happens now?

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The US Supreme Court has made some decisions that legal scholars, other judges, lawyers, and people in general have strongly criticized as mistaken, but none anywhere nearly as wild as the one suggested in the question. Many such, well let me call them "disputed", rulings have been later overturned by the court itself. A well known example is Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940), which was overruled a few years later by West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943). Many of the so-called Lochner era economic decisions were also eventually overturned by the Court itself.

Some disputed holdings have been altered by changes in the law, State or Federal. Some have been overturned via a constitutional amendment, such as Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 243 (1833), which is now held to have been overruled by the Fourteenth Amendment, although the Court did not come to that conclusion until early in the 20th century.

Perhaps the most notorious case is Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393 (1857) which held that a person of African descent could never become a US citizen, and that Congress was without power to prohibit slavery in any US state or territory. This is perhaps the most denounced decision of the US Supreme Court in its history (See the linked Wikipedia article for a few such comments.) This decision was undone de facto by the outcome of the US Civil War, and de jure by the adoption of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Some cases have later been treated as "bad law" even though not formally overturned. An example is Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944), in which the Supreme Court upheld the removal of US citizens of Japanese ancestry from the US Pacific coast during WWII, and their confinement in what has been described as a series of concentration camps. This has not been formally overruled, but in Trump v. Hawaii No. 17-965, 585 U.S. ___ (2018), Chief Justice Roberts wrote:

The dissent's reference to Korematsu, however, affords this Court the opportunity to make express what is already obvious: Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and—to be clear—'has no place in law under the Constitution.' 323 U. S., at 248 (Jackson, J., dissenting). [quoting Jackson's dissent in Korematsu]

And some cases, although much disputed, still stand as good law. The case of Flood v. Kuhn, 407 U.S. 258 (1972), holding that Baseball continued to be exempt from anti-trust laws, federal and state, has been much criticized, but remains in force to this day. (See the section "Subsequent jurisprudence" in the linked Wikipedia article) Congress has not, so far, acted to limit the exemption, as the opinion indicates that it had the power to do.

In short, a US Supreme Court decision, however "erroneous" or "absurd" commentators or the public may consider it, remains the law of the land until it is overturned or distinguished by the court, or made obsolete by changes in statute or in the Constitution itself. It the highly unlikely situation described in the question, John Doe would remain in prison until his sentence expired or he received a pardon.

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  • 1
    What about Chevron? Many lawyers seem to hate Chevron
    – Trish
    Jun 19, 2022 at 9:14
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    @Trish I didn't make any attempt to list each case lawyers dislike or disapprove of. I only listed a few of the more glaring ones, so as to illustrate each type of response: overturn by a later court decision, legislative change, constitutional change, or decision still in force.There are many other decisions that could have been mentioned. Jun 19, 2022 at 15:40
  • How is saying that a case is wrong not equivalent to overturning it? Does the statement have to be in the main ruling (e.g. "Roe and Casey are overruled" in Dobbs) for it to have legal effect?
    – Someone
    Mar 7, 2023 at 21:00
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    Some SCOTUS interpretations of the constitution like the 11th Amendment are utterly impossible to discern from the text of the document itself. Many important constitutional law doctrines have no direct textual basis (e.g. qualified immunity, lack of vicarious liability for constitutional violations, standing, the dormant commerce clause, etc.)
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 7, 2023 at 22:36
  • Roe vs. Wade should be on the list as well. It wasn't criticized as much due to scholars generally being pro-choice but it was clearly a huge stretch, which is why it was eventually overruled. Dec 11, 2023 at 20:18
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Your scenario is that the person has exhausted all avenues of appeal and the highest authorities in the land decide the person must be imprisoned.

Surely, in any jurisdiction, whether the case is mundane or bizarre, if the authorities decide a person should be in prison then the person will be imprisoned until the authorities decide otherwise (e.g. on appeal, pardon, probation, changed mind etc). Unless the person escapes or for some reason no-one physically acts to imprison the person or all prisons are blockaded (i.e. acts outside the law).

How could it be otherwise / what is the possible alternative?

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  • A person could appeal to the social contract which makes the law valid and express their dissent (that the authorities are somehow breaking the social contract that establishes the law over the people). At that point, the individual could simply walk away from the proceedings as s/he no longer recognizes the validity of the process. What happens after that will be on the head of those who made the decision. Jun 16, 2022 at 23:38
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    @MarkRosenblitt-Janssen You can’t just walk away from prison. That’s why there are walls.
    – cpast
    Jun 16, 2022 at 23:43
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – feetwet
    Mar 8, 2023 at 0:34
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John serves 20 years

That’s what the “supreme” in the Supreme Court means: if they say it, it’s the law.

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  • Couldn't the decision be overturned in that 20 year span? Then would John need to be released?
    – Brandin
    Jun 16, 2022 at 12:17
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    @Brandin if there was another case on the same matter and lower courts decided not to follow precedent such that the SCOTUS got to look at it and if they overturned their own precedent, yes.
    – Dale M
    Jun 16, 2022 at 12:23
  • @Brandin Just because the law changes and an act is no longer illegal doesn't mean you will get out of jail as you still did break the law at the time. aggressivecriminaldefense.com/…
    – Joe W
    Jun 16, 2022 at 12:35
  • @JoeW correct. However, if one is imprisoned under a law that is declared unconstitutional, one can sue for release, because the law is declared unconstitutional, period, even though the law was declared unconstitutional after the crime was committed. (Otherwise, nobody would bother seeking to have criminal laws declared unconstitutional because it wouldn't help.)
    – phoog
    Jun 16, 2022 at 12:55
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    @phoog Correct, I was just pointing out that release is not automatic when a law is changed.
    – Joe W
    Jun 16, 2022 at 13:54

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