If the President (and their administration) considered the Supreme Court to be politically "illegitimate", would they be able to ignore its rulings?

Is there any precedent for this?

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    What do you mean by "can"? Do you mean is the President able to ignore the Supreme Court (in the sense that the President won't generally be prevented from doing so or won't generally be sanctioned afterward), or do you mean is the President allowed to ignore the Supreme Court (in the sense that the President has legal discretion about how much regard the President pays to rulings of the Supreme Court)? These are very different questions. Apr 16, 2021 at 8:17
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    @henning--reinstateMonica Are we in a classroom where a teacher corrects a child for asking if they "can" go to the restroom instead of "may"? Any reasonable person understand what "can" means in contexts like this.
    – Barmar
    Apr 16, 2021 at 13:18
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    @Barmar I don't understand, although I think I'm somewhat reasonable. The question may very well be about the potential factual consequences of POTUS not complying with a SCOTUS ruling. Both versions of the question are actually interesting, but they require different answers. Apr 16, 2021 at 13:22
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    @Barmar POTUS may be impeached (or not), may face defeat in subsequent elections (or be applauded for "standing his ground in a crisis"), may face other legal sanctions (or not), may be able to argue that his actions are in fact covered by the SCOTUS ruling (or not). No, SCOTUS doesn't have enforcement powers, if that's what you mean by "physical" , but noncompliance may trigger other sorts of repercussions unfavorable for POTUS. Noncompliance is thus always a matter of weighing its potential costs and benefits. Also, legally allowed and politically acceptable (or legitimate) are not the same! Apr 16, 2021 at 13:35
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    An example might be helpful. The Supreme Court is in charge of other courts. It's not like they can directly tell the President what to do. What sort of decision are you thinking of where "will the president obey?" would apply? Apr 16, 2021 at 15:17

4 Answers 4


There are no grounds for the President to declare the Supreme Court 'politically illegitimate' given that the Supreme Court is an institution that is directly established by the Constitution. Such a declaration would be grounds for the impeachment of the President, in my opinion.

However, the online Constitutional Rights Foundation points out:

President Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828 and he declared that the only hope for the South eastern tribes survival would be for them to give up their land move and move west of the Missisippi river. This is why he backed the Indian Removal bill in Congress.

However, members of Congress such as Davy Crockett argued that Jackson was violating the Constitution by refusing to enforce treaties that guaranteed Indian land rights. Nevertheless, Congress passed the bill in 1830.

Although removal was supposed to be voluntary, Jackson cut off payments to the tribes for previous land deals until they moved. He also agreed with Georgia and other Southern states that state law controlled tribal land. For example, Georgia had passed laws that abolished the Cherokee government.

In 1830, the US Supreme Court ruled in Worcester vs Georgia that Jackson was wrong. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in a majority opinion that the Constitution gave Congress, not the states, the power to make laws that applied to the Indian tribes.

Despite this clear court victory for the Cherokees Jackson openly refused to enforce it, and the Southern states ignored it.

This lead directly to the Trail of Tears and to a policy that Wikipedia and Noam Chomsky called "the Indian genocide" and also what the political theorist, Alexis de Toqueville described as "a policy of extermination" and who watched a group of Choctows cross the frozen Mississippi river, writing:

The Indians had their families with them, and they brought in their train the wounded and the sick, with children newly born and old men on the verge of death ... Never will that solemn spectacle fade from my remembrance . No cry, no sob was heard amongst the assembled crowd: all were silent.

President Jackson, by refusing to enforce the Supreme Court decision would have been in breach of the Constitution - the supreme law of the United States - and hence would have committed what the Constitution calls a 'high crime' being grounds for impeachment - that is removal from the office of President by Congress. That this did not occur shows the strength of the southern states at the time.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – JJJ
    Apr 19, 2021 at 9:03

Any political system — and I'm using the term 'any' in the strong sense — operates on the basis of political norms. Political norms are not enshrined in laws, statutes, constitutions, or institutions. Political norms are attitudes we share towards those things: respect for the law, recognition of authority and delegated power, acceptance of community standards, belief in the integrity and efficacy of the system...

The US Constitution lays out rules and standards for the basic functioning of government, but the US Constitution only has power because most people, most of the time, hold to the political norm that the Constitution is a valid and intrinsically good document. US Presidents (with a couple of exceptions) have always felt that it was their duty to restrict themselves to the powers delegated to the office by that document, and the exceptions have always found themselves running into severe opposition from both opponents and allies indignant over that refusal to respect the political norms. The different branches of government may challenge each other over which has control of particular powers — that's natural to an agonistic system of government — but overtly defying the power of a different branch is generally considered outright anathema.

Don't over-intellectualize this. Political norms are deeply ingrained and highly charged emotionally. The intense negative reactions many people had to Trump over the last few years had less to do with anything Trump explicitly said or did than with the self-evident fact that Trump rejected and disrespected most of US political norms, as not applying to him.

The violation of a political norm — such as refusing to follow the instructions of the Supreme Court — is likely grounds for impeachment. If we look at the list of people impeached by the House we can see that all the grounds for impeachment (whether or not they were overt crimes) involved an express contempt for the norms of the office held: intoxication, arbitrary use of power, refusal to perform the duties of office, bribery and cronyism, varies instances of treason or insurrection. If a president refused to accept a Supreme Court ruling, it's likely he would be sued over his refusal, face opposition and corrective legislation from Congress, and ultimately impeached for misconduct. If none of those things succeeded, that president would effectively break our system of government, simply because he succeeded in breaking our political norms.

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    "valid and intrinsically good document" I don't see what intrinsic goodness has to do with this. One can believe (and many do) that the Constitution is a wildly misguided document and still respect it as a source of authority. Certainly the people who wrote the original document did not think that it was in any sense "intrinsically good" but rather that it was the best solution they could come up with to an impossible problem. Apr 16, 2021 at 8:54
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    "succeeded in breaking our political norms" -- This is what was frequently referred to as a "constitutional crisis" in the media during the Trump administration?
    – Barmar
    Apr 16, 2021 at 13:14
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    @Barmer: Constitutional crises (which have occurred sporadically over US history, not just in the Trump administration) are moments when political norms are threatened but one political group or another. When a group actually breaks political norms, it's not longer a constitutional crisis: it's a coup, or a rebellion, or a transition to a different form of governance. Apr 16, 2021 at 14:36
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    @Barmar: Trump's actions up to Jan 6 were a constitutional crisis: a threat to the norms of transition of power that did not technically exceed the normal powers of the Office of the President or the normal rights of citizen Trump. He merely blurred and bent the standards in unfortunate ways. Jan 6 overstepped, and became a coup attempt, after which a horrified Congress doubled down and reasserted the norms of transition of power by pushing through the certification process even as the rioters were being dispersed, thus relieving the constitutional crisis (at east for a bit). Apr 16, 2021 at 14:42
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    @DreamConspiracy: Apologies, I used the phrase "valid and intrinsically good'' in a philosophical sense that I dIdn't explain. It isn't that people like the document or think it's perfect; it's more that people accept the principles of the document as a philosophical (Socratic) good; an expression of something desirable. People can see elements of the document as flawed and misguided while still respecting and embracing the principles. Again, this isn't an intellectual assessment of the document's worth; it's an emotional attachment to the ideal. Apr 16, 2021 at 15:02

This is a weird question. The Supreme Court is established in the Constitution. A President that ignores the rulings of the Supreme Court is therefore not upholding the Constitution.

That would break their vow of office, which is the part of the Constitution that says "you have to obey the constitution".

Can a President break their vow? Well physically yes. Humans are existentially free. Even with a gun to your head, you are free to choose to take the bullet. A President is free in this sense. Whether they can get away with it depends on how many people you can get to support you.

Constitutionally, no of course not. Although as you go back in history you can find examples (such as Jackson's suggestion that it is up to the court itself to enforce its interpretation of the Constitution) of Presidents in conflict with the court. And the courts depend on the executive to act on their judgements.

The "rule of law" is not codified in the constitution. It is part an unwritten set of conventions, traditions and customs. And understanding how the USA works you need to have some knowledge of these customs. Presidents can push back against Court decisions, but they don't blatently ignore them.

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    But unless Congress acts to impeach and remove the President, there's little consequence to him ignoring their rulings.
    – Barmar
    Apr 16, 2021 at 13:16
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    Sure, but it is like "Can I steal from the supermarket?" ... It's obviously illegal and so "not allowed", but you would probably get away with it for small items. But the criminal law doesn't specify things that you can probably get away with. Likewise, the Constitution expects that it will be upheld. As for "little consequence" well most Presidents have been Christians, and breaking an oath on the bible is a mortal sin.
    – James K
    Apr 16, 2021 at 21:51
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    What circle of Hell is reserved for presidents who use tear gas on peaceful protesters so they can cross the street for a photo op with the Bible? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Barmar
    Apr 16, 2021 at 21:54

A piece of paper is just a piece of paper

A piece of paper can't make anybody do anything. When a judge writes a bunch of words on a piece of paper and signs it, that does nothing by itself. And yet when a judge speaks, those words have power. Why? Because the system has chosen to invest them with power. But what does that mean - and how does it come to mean anything at all? In Game of Thrones, Varys' Riddle gets at the same point.

A judge has power because the system does, and vests it in them. The system has power because the public is invested in it. It was engineered by its designers such that everyone feels better off with it, than without it. Compared to the previous system, the Articles of Confederation (flawed enough it collapsed in less than twenty years), its replacement has lasted over two hundred and counting.

In Game of Thrones, the titular Game of Thrones is an analogy for the struggle for power. It has rules, and winners, and losers. Modern governments have figured out a way (at a great and bloody cost over the centuries) of tweaking the rules so that the losers of the game just lose control for awhile; they get to come back later and try again. They don't get killed, which used to be common.

But every game, no matter what the rules say, always has one move available to every player: Quit playing and do your own thing. Society doesn't like that, of course, so it has many ways to punish you and try to force you back into line; judges are granted many powers for this purpose. But what if a large enough chunk of the system decides they simply do not care, rules be damned, they're not going along with it?

Ultimately the Supreme Court is just a group of nine people that make up one cog in the system. Multiple times throughout the United States' history, the courts have made rulings that Congress didn't like that they effectively overturned by passing legislation. These relate to interpretations of existing laws, not constitutional issues; the Supreme Court said 'the current laws mean X' and Congress decides they don't like X, so they change the law to mean something different.

And then there are the handful of times that the President has just ignored the Supreme Court and did whatever he wanted.

What stops this? First is the threat of impeachment. Impeachment and removal from office is a real consequence he can do nothing about (within the system, at least, he can always attempt to order the Joint Chiefs to detain Senators trying to oust him). But that's not the only consequence. Insurrection and civil war are the ultimate consequence he, and every other politician and judge, have to fear.

So the President yields to the Supreme Court because Congress won't support him if he doesn't. Until he has enough support in Congress that they do anyway. He yields to Congress and the courts because the military won't obey an order to detain them and declare martial law. Until he's got enough pull with them that they will.

The main thing that prevents this is that most presidents value the system enough they wouldn't want to try to make either of those things happen in the first place, because it would permanently weaken the system in a way they could never reverse, if it succeeded.

The President attempting to straight up ignore the Supreme Court would result in a 'constitutional crisis', which is a fancy way of saying 'it would make the important people decide if they actually value the system over other things they also care about, like their careers or the way they think the country ought to be run'.

  • This seems like more of a general political rant, while.you may raise some unrelated interesting philosophical concepts, it's irrelevant. The question is what it is. I do know the president in combination with congress can over turn a supreme court ruling, per the constitution, it's part of checks and balances. Apr 18, 2021 at 9:25
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    It's not unrelated at all. It directly answers the question, to whit, 'of course he can, but whether he gets away with it or not depends less on what the rules say, and more on whether the right people decide to go along with it'.
    – Ton Day
    Apr 18, 2021 at 10:36
  • Actually this is a very good answer and I'm tempted to accept it as it addresses the underlying reasons for why the system works as it does. It could be improved with examples and quotes etc however.
    – WOPR
    Apr 18, 2021 at 10:56
  • @marshalcraft "rant" is a rather pejorative term, which IMO is not warranted. One could interpret the question as asking whether there is a constitutional basis for ignoring the Supreme Court, and this answer largely addresses a different question, but the question isn't explicit in asking about constitutionality, so I think it is legitimate to discuss the larger issue of legitimacy and practicality. PS to Ton Day: it's "to wit". Apr 18, 2021 at 23:18
  • You seem to be talking about some kind of lawless mob behavior, which is quite irrelevant to any type of government. Sure that r a military coo or a dictator can dissolve everything, or an invasion or nuclear Armageddon, any of those are about as relevant. While they may be interesting, like strategy etc., it's unrelated matter to all the gov specifics bothered to be put in the political question. Maybe reformulate this question you seem to all want, strip the redundant useless gov specific stuff and ask some kind of economics s.e. question and tag non cooperative strategies or something. Apr 20, 2021 at 5:38

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