There have not been many cases in which the Supreme Court has explicitly and avowedly overruled its prior decisions, but there have been frequent instances in which the doctrines declared in prior cases, have been in part evaded or modified without explicit repudiation.
Taney in the Passenger Cases53 says: "I had supposed that question to be settled, so far as any question upon the construction of the Constitution ought to he regarded as closed by the decision of this court. I do not, however, object to the revision of it, and am quite willing that it be regarded hereafter as the law of this court that its opinion upon the construction of the Constitution is always open to discussion when it is supposed to be founded in error, and that its judicial authority should hereafter depend altogether on the force of the reasoning by which it is supported."
In Washington University v. Rouse54 Justice Miller said: "With as full respect for the authority of former decisions as belongs, from teaching and habit, to judges trained in the common law system of jurisprudence, we think there may be questions touching the powers of legislative bodies which can never be closed by the decisions of a court."
There are indeed good reasons why the doctrine of stare decisis should not be so rigidly applied to the constitutional as to other laws.
In cases of purely private import, the chief desideratum is that the law remain certain, and, therefore, where a rule has been judicially declared and private rights created thereunder, the courts will not, except in the clearest cases of error, depart from the doctrine of stare decisis. When, however, public interests are involved, and especially when the question is one of constitutional construction, the matter is otherwise. An error in the construction of a statute may easily be corrected by a legislative act, but a constitution and particularly the federal Constitution, may be changed only with great difficulty. Hence an error in its inter-pretation may for all practical purposes be corrected only by the court's repudiating or modifying its former decision.55
53 7 How. 283; 12 L. ed. 702.
54 8 Wall. 430: 10 L. ed. 498.
55 Cf. Baldwin, American Judiciary, pp. 56-57.