The 5 Worst Cases the Supreme Court Got Wrong


We’re getting close to the end of a Supreme Court term, and with the end of their term comes controversial rulings bound to make someone angry.  You may ask: “was it always this way.”  The answer, of course, is yes.  Here are five of the most vexing and, quite frankly, incomprehensible rulings the SCOTUS has ever made.

5. Nix v. Hedden. Tomatoes are veggies!

In America we like to talk about “dinner table issues.”  Well, this case from the 1890s settles one of the most vexing dinner table issues of all: Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?  What brought this issue to the Court was a suit over a tax in New York (where else) on the import of vegetables.  Clever salesmen, however, tried to make the point that tomatoes are fruits and that they therefore shouldn’t have to pay the extra taxes.  The SCOTUS wasn’t impressed and held that for legal purposes tomatoes would henceforth be counted as a vegetable.  This awful decision may have led to ketchup and even pizza qualifying as a vegetable!  Good for kids but bad for nutritionists everywhere.

Photo credit: CollegeDegrees360 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo credit: CollegeDegrees360 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

4. American Broadcasting Companies v. Aereo. A stone age tech decision.

I’ll mark this one down as the day the Court failed to move into the digital age.  Until last year, Aereo was a company that allowed subscribers to watch and record broadcast television over the Internet.  The same broadcast television you can get legally just by plugging in rabbit ears and hitting “record” on your favorite device.  The Court, however, seemed to think that when a service does this over the Internet, it follows different rules and counts as a “public performance,” therefore being illegal.  Whatever, if the broadcast companies don’t want Internet companies broadening their reach (and presumably their advertisement values), I guess it’s their loss.

Photo credit: Charles Fettinger via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Photo credit: Charles Fettinger via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

3. NFIB v. Sebelius. Obamacare: “It’s a Tax!”

Remember all those times, when the Affordable Care Act was being debated in Congress and afterwards, that Democrats assured us the individual mandate wasn’t a tax?  Well, when the law went before the Supreme Court for the first time in 2012, government lawyers were singing a very different tune and arguing that the law must, in fact, be a tax and therefore constitutional.  Rather than ask some pointed questions about their sudden change of heart, the Roberts Court ruled 5-4 that the law’s penalty for not buying insurance was, in fact, a tax, ensuring that we’d have to brave the new exchanges the next year.

Dred Scott
Dred Scott

2. Dred Scott v. Sandford. Denial of citizenship, expansion of slavery.

Dred Scott was born a slave but was brought to several states where slavery was illegal.  Needless to say he did everything he could to change his situation, including trying to buy his freedom and eventually suing.  The Court had other ideas though, and in an infamous 7-2 decision not only returned him to slavery, but also called the citizenship of African Americans into question and struck down the Missouri Compromise, which until then had restricted slavery to below the Mason-Dixon line.  Even for the times, this one was a bad call.

pregnancy1. Roe v. Wade.

Topping of the list is this offspring of Griswold.  The 1973 ruling has caused more division and pain than perhaps any other ruling of the 20th century.  The thing is, this case was so poorly written that even staunch abortion backers on the Court like Ruth Bader Ginsberg have said that the ruling should have been narrower.  Add in the fact that it legalized abortion on demand, for any reason, when even most women want restrictions on it, and it’s a mess of a case that completely ignores the will of the American public.

Nick Arnold is a researcher for American Principles in Action.

Nick Arnold

Nick Arnold is a researcher for the American Principles Project.

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