Every Time The Supreme Court Ruled Against A United States President

The United States has a system of checks and balances. This means no single person has complete power over laws and rulings within the country, not even the president. Supreme Court rulings are the final decision regarding whether laws and acts are constitutional, meaning they have major impact on the country at large. At times, members of the US Supreme Court stand in opposition to a sitting president and may rule against that president if they deem it necessary. These are often controversial rulings that lead to debate and disagreement along partisan lines. Times the Supreme Court disagreed with the president often led to dramatic changes in the power structure of our government. 

Presidents who lost to the Supreme Court reacted in different ways. While some rulings were quietly accepted, others were challenged or outright ignored. Regardless of how a single president reacted, however, president versus Supreme court rulings have long lasting effects that reach well beyond term limits. Therefore, it's important to be educated about when and why various presidents clashed with the Judicial Branch to more fully understand the implications of the US Constitution. 

  • In 2018, the Supreme Court refused to review a federal judge's order stating that the Trump Administration must continue to support the DACA program. The program offers federal protections for children who entered the US illegally. The move by the Court went against Trump's desire to end the program and force Congress to develop new legislation.

    The refusal, for the time being, left DACA intact. The case will continue to move through the court of appeals. 

  • In 2014, during Noel Canning v. National Labor Relations Board, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against President Obama's ability to make recess appointments without the Senate officially declaring itself in recess. Recess appointments allow the president to temporarily appoint individuals to government posts while the Senate is not in session.

    A bottling company known as Noel Canning filed the suit, arguing members of the National Labor Relations Board were unconstitutionally appointed. The ruling makes it more difficult for a president to make federal appointments without the approval of congress.

  • In 2006, in the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration of George W. Bush could not order military trials in regards to war crimes by Guantanamo Bay detainees. The Court's primary objection was that Bush did not get congressional approval before ordering the tribunals and therefore violated international law.

    This news came in the wake of the 2004 prisoner abuse scandal regarding Guantanamo Bay. 

  • 1996: Bill Clinton's Request For Presidential Immunity
    Photo: Tim Hamilton / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    In 1996, during the Clinton v. Jones case, the Supreme Court agreed with a Court of Appeals decision stating that a sitting president can be subjected to civil lawsuits while holding office. The case stemmed from Paula Jones filing a sexual harassment lawsuit against Bill Clinton. Clinton sought to have the case dismissed on the grounds of presidential immunity. Originally, a judge denied the immunity request, but suspended the proceedings until after the Clinton presidency.

    The Supreme Court, however, ruled a United States president does not have immunity from civil law litigation while in office. The consequences of the decision had a major impact on Clinton's presidency as he was eventually found in contempt of court for lying under oath about having a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. This led to Clinton's impeachment trial, which resulted in the president's acquittal of all charges.

  • In 1974, the case United States v. Nixon decided on an executive privilege claim presented by President Nixon's lawyers. The prosecutor in the Watergate indictments, as well as the seven defendants in the case, wanted access to the tapes Nixon had recorded in the White House over the years. Nixon had his attorney file a claim stating that executive privilege gave him the right to withhold the recordings as it was a matter of national security.

    The Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Nixon and the tapes went on to be used in the House's impeachment proceedings against Nixon in regards to Watergate. He resigned about two weeks after the Court's decision.

  • During the Korean War, tensions in US steel mills threatened mass strikes in the United States. This could potentially halt steel production, which Harry Truman believed would be dangerous during a war. In response, he ordered his Secretary of Commerce to seize all the steel mills to prevent them from shutting down.

    Only a few weeks later, the Supreme Court ruled that President Truman's seizure of steel mills was unconstitutional. The Court's decision allowed steel workers to strike and their absence did not affect the defense needs of the nation as inventories were adequate.