The question of same sex marriage going to the Supreme Court made me think of this. I believe it’s either 3 or 4 circuit courts that have ruled that bans against SSM are unconstitutional or declined to hear a case (several others pending). Of course the question is, will SCOTUS take it up or not.
My question is, has SCOTUS ever overturned numerous circuit court rulings on the same issue before?
Cases don’t generally get to the Supreme Court until they have gone through the appeals process in the Circuit Courts. And usually, had conflicting rulings between different Circuits. So no matter how the Supreme Court rules, it’s going to be overturning one or more of the Circuit Courts.
If all the Circuit Courts have ruled the same way (as is the case on equal marriage rights), and the Supreme Court agrees, there is no need for them to hear the case at all – they just decline to hear any appeals, and the various Circuit Court rulings stand. (Plus the remaining Circuits will get the message, too, for future cases in their Circuit.)
Given matching decisions in the various Circuit Courts, the Supreme Court only needs to hear an appeal if they think there is a chance they will overturn the Circuit Courts. (Sometimes they might hear it anyway, because some Justices think they might persuafe others to overturn all the Circuits, while other Justices think they can get a ruling that will be a precedent nationwide.)
Your question might be more precise in asking if there has ever been an instance where multiple Circuit Courts have all ruled the same way on an issue, only to have the Supreme Court overrule them all. It’ll take a legal scholar to answer that .
I came looking for this question after hearing that the Seventh Circuit has now joined with the Tenth and Fourth in declaring bans on SSM unconstitutional. I’m not an expert on the Supreme Court, but I don’t think t-bonham’s “presumably, almost always” is a reasonable presumption. I really don’t know though. In which other cases has the SCOTUS reviewed essentially the same issue from multiple appeals courts at the same time?
Some of the desegregation cases in the 1950s were conglomerations of cases from many states spread over many Circuits - for instance, Brown v. Board of Education involved four different states and DC. The SSM cases are pretty unique as far as I know, though - following Windsor the floodgates really burst open, pretty much everywhere simultaneously.
The Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments on Idaho and Nevada’s SSM bans yesterday and seemed unimpressed, but it’s not as clear what the Sixth Circuit was thinking after they heard arguments. We may end up with a circuit split pretty soon.
That’s interesting about Brown, but if I’m reading it right, none of the five cases combined into Brown were decided by Circuit Courts of Appeals. Most of them were appealed directly from federal district courts. That doesn’t seem to be an available route now, but I don’t know why. Also, the district courts were informed by Plesy v. Ferguson, and probably felt that only the Supreme Court could overrule that decision. Here, the old precedent is Baker v. Nelson, but the majority of federal courts seem to be ruling that the Windsor decision reverses Baker.
From what I’ve read, the Ninth Circuit panel was openly berating the lawyer arguing for the defendants. It’s pretty clear which way they’re going to go. The Sixth Circuit could go either way, but seemed to be leaning towards the states and against SSM. When they reconvene in October, the Supremes will be facing either five pro-SSM circuits or four pro and one con. (Another appeal is pending in the Fifth Circuit, but they seem reluctant to schedule it, the cowards!) If SCOTUS actually does take on the issue and overrules the four or five circuits, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s a unique event in its history.
I think we are heading to a June 2015, last day of the term, decision with Kennedy writing the opinion; or alternatively Roberts writing the opinion with Kennedy explaining why he thought this one was different. I hope it is a fairly decisive one instead of one that keeps the national in turmoil as did Romer, Lawrence, and Windsor.