Rivers v. Roadway Express, Inc., 511 U.S. 298, 16 (1994)

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Cite as: 511 U. S. 298 (1994)

Opinion of the Court

ment of what the statute meant before as well as after the decision of the case giving rise to that construction.12 Thus, Patterson provides the authoritative interpretation of the phrase "make and enforce contracts" in the Civil Rights Act of 1866 before the 1991 amendment went into effect on November 21, 1991. That interpretation provides the baseline for our conclusion that the 1991 amendment would be "retroactive" if applied to cases arising before that date.

Congress, of course, has the power to amend a statute that it believes we have misconstrued. It may even, within broad constitutional bounds, make such a change retroactive and thereby undo what it perceives to be the undesirable past consequences of a misinterpretation of its work product. No such change, however, has the force of law unless it is implemented through legislation. Even when Congress intends to supersede a rule of law embodied in one of our decisions with what it views as a better rule established in earlier decisions, its intent to reach conduct preceding the "corrective" amendment must clearly appear. We cannot say that such an intent clearly appears with respect to 101. For this reason, and because it creates liabilities that had no legal existence before the Act was passed, 101 does not apply to preenactment conduct.

12 When Congress enacts a new statute, it has the power to decide when the statute will become effective. The new statute may govern from the date of enactment, from a specified future date, or even from an expressly announced earlier date. But when this Court construes a statute, it is explaining its understanding of what the statute has meant continuously since the date when it became law. In statutory cases the Court has no authority to depart from the congressional command setting the effective date of a law that it has enacted. Thus, it is not accurate to say that the Court's decision in Patterson "changed" the law that previously prevailed in the Sixth Circuit when this case was filed. Rather, given the structure of our judicial system, the Patterson opinion finally decided what 1981 had always meant and explained why the Courts of Appeals had misinterpreted the will of the enacting Congress.

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