Bizarro Statutory Stare Decisis


In Smith v. City of Jackson, the Supreme Court applied to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act one of its decisions interpreting Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which Congress had overridden with the Civil Rights Act of 1991. It treated Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, dealing with disparate impact theory and burdens of proof, as a binding interpretation of the ADEA, despite that Congress expressed disapproval of Wards Cove. The Court relied on two interpretive approaches to arrive at this result: the presumption that identical language in the ADEA and Title VII should be interpreted consistently and the strong presumption of statutory stare decisis. This convergence of circumstances led to the odd result of duplicating the congressionally disfavored Wards Cove interpretation.

I use the comic book story of Bizarro, Superman’s imperfect duplicate, as an allegory for the Smith Court's flawed invocation of statutory stare decisis to duplicate Wards Cove, labeling it Bizarro statutory stare decisis. None of the justifications for the regular presumption of statutory stare decisis supports the result in Smith. Furthermore, Bizarro statutory stare decisis interferes with the proper balance of power between Congress and the Court and implicates the countermajoritarian difficulty of elevating the Court’s interpretations over Congress’s expressed preferences. The paper explores other contexts in which Bizarro statutory stare decisis could wreak havoc.

Finally, I present an alternative to Bizarro statutory stare decisis. In situations like Smith, the Court should not treat an overridden interpretation as binding precedent, but should interpret the statute before it as a matter of first impression. In doing so, an overridden interpretation should not be duplicated without clear textual, purposive, or historical evidence that the overridden interpretation is more appropriate this time around. The paper concludes by applying this alternative to Smith and explaining why Wards Cove should never have been revived.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Labor and Employment Law | Law and Society | Legislation

Date of this Version

August 2006