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Most Important U.S. Supreme Court Cases
Marbury v. Madison (1803)
U.S. Supreme Court has authority to declare acts of Congress Unconstitutional.
McCulloch v Maryland (1819)
States did not have authority to tax Federal Banks. The Court decided the case based on the implied powers of Congress to make all necessary and proper laws by appropriate means to carry out its Constitutional enumerated powers. Held that the power to tax is the power to destroy.
Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)
Marshall, C.J. Supremacy of Federal Laws over State Laws when in conflict. The case defined the extent to which Congress could exercise its power pursuant to the Interstate Commerce Clause.Gibbons was in possession of an exclusive federal license to operate steamboats between Elizabethtown and the City of New York. Ogden was in possession of an exclusive license issued by the State of New York to operate steamboats over the same waters. The Court decided in favor of Gibbons.
Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1857
“The Constitution does not consider slaves to be U.S. citizens. Rather, they are constitutionally protected property of their masters.”
Chief Justice Roger Taney authored this opinion— one of the most important and scorned in the nation’s history. Dred Scott, a slave, had moved with his master to Illinois, a free state. He moved again to a slave state, Missouri, and filed suit to gain freedom, under that state’s law of “Once free, always free.” Taney held that Scott had never been free at all, and cited Constitutional grounds for placing the slavery decision in the hands of the states. In trying to put an end to the slavery controversy, Taney instead sped the nation toward civil war. The decision was later overturned by the Thirteenth Amendment.
Munn v. Illinois, 1877
Businesses that serve the public interest are subject to regulation by state government.
The Illinois state legislature passed a law that established the maximum rates that private companies could charge in storing or transporting agricultural products. In Chicago the company of Munn and Scott was found guilty of breaking the law and the verdict was upheld on appeal before the Supreme Court. The appeal was heard along with seven other railroad cases that dealt with the violation of the regulatory legislation passed by the state of Illinois. The Court ruled that any business that served the public interest was subject to regulation by the state government. If the rates were not satisfactory according to the owners of the companies, the complaints should be taken to the legislature and not to the courts.
Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
Jim Crow laws are constitutional under the doctrine of ‘Separate but Equal.’
Police arrested Homer Plessy for refusing to leave a railroad car that prohibited “colored” people.Under Louisiana law, Plessy was “colored” because he was one-eighth black. The Court ruled that the race-based “Jim Crow” laws did not violate the Constitution as long as the states proffered separate but equal treatment.
“The Constitution is color blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”
—Justice John Marshall Harlan,
from the lone dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson
Lochner v. New York, 1905 (effectively overruled)
The Constitution bars a state from interfering with an employee’s right to contract with an employer.
The above reasoning led to the “Lochner Era”—thirty-two years of wrangling between the court and legislatures. Lochner’s bakery violated a New York labor law. The court struck down the law, saying that the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause barred states from regulating commerce in this manner. This clause, the Court said, implied that individuals have a fundamental right to contract with employers, and states cannot interfere with that right.
Note: Lochner has been followed in two subsequent cases Adair v. U.S. Federal Government could not require employee to join a union, and Adkins v. Children’s Hospital struck down minimum wage law in D.C. Nevertheless Lochner has effectively been overruled by subsequent decisions allowing for example National
Labor Relations Act in 1939 allowing collective bargaining agreements. And the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which regulated minimum wage and overtime.
Schenck v. United States, 1919
Speech that presents a “clear and present danger” to the security of the United States is in violation of the principle of free speech as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
During World War I (1918), Charles Schenck was the general secretary of the Socialist Party, and was arrested for distributing literature discouraging young men from enlisting in the armed forces. The basis for his opposition to the draft or enlistment was the first clause of the Thirteenth Amendment which prohibited slavery or involuntary servitude. Schenck appealed his conviction and the case went to the Supreme Court. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated that “the character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done. The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. [The] question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” Distributing the literature during peace time would have been an entirely different matter, but in time of war Schenck’s actions, according to the Court, presented a “clear and
present danger” to the security of the United States.
Near v. Minnesota, 1931
“The liberty of the press ... is safeguarded from invasion by state action.”
Although the First Amendment ensures a free press, until this case, it only protected the press from federal laws, not state laws. Minnesota shut down J. M. Near’s Saturday Press for publishing vicious antisemitic and racist remarks. In what is regarded as the landmark free press decision, the Court ruled that a state cannot engage in “prior restraint”; that is, with rare exceptions, it cannot stop a person from publishing or expressing a thought.
West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, 1937
“The switch in time that saved nine.”
F. D. R. rallied against the Court’s holdings in the Lochner era. The Court struck down New Deal laws, designed to pull the country out of the Depression, on grounds that they interfered with a worker’s “right to contract.” F. D. R. pledged to expand the Court and pack it with pro “New Deal” members. In this case, the Court rejected the Lochner era decisions and said the government could regulate commerce.
Brown v. Board of Education, 1954
“In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”
This unanimous decision marked the beginning of the end for the “Separate But Equal” era that started with Plessy, and the start of a new period of American race relations. With Brown, desegregation of public schools began—as did resistance to it. Ten contentious years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made racial equality a matter of federal law.
Mapp v. Ohio, 1961
Evidence that is illegally obtained by the state may not be used against a defendant in court.
Until Mapp, only the federal government was barred from using illegally obtained evidence. So when local police e ntered Dolly Mapp’s home without a search warrant and arrested her for possessing obscene books, her conviction initially stood. The Court overturned her conviction, however, and extended the Constitutional rule to apply to the states and their subdivisions.
“I know it when I see it.”
—Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964
Baker v. Carr, 1962
“One person, one vote.”
The above phrase was not authored until a year after Baker, but it has its philosophical roots here. In this case, a group of Tennessee voters sued the state, claiming its voting districts diluted their political power. Until this point, the Court refused to decide this kind of case, leaving such “political questions” to the states. Baker, however, held that the states must meet a Constitutional standard for appointment: districts cannot be drawn in such a way that they violate the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Engel v. Vitale, 1962
Public institutions (i.e., a school system) cannot require prayer.
Lawrence Roth, an avowed atheist, objected that the Long Island, New York School System was forcing his two children to recite a 22 word prayer at the beginning of the day. There were actually four other parents involved in the suit against school board president William Vitale, Jr. The Supreme Court ruled that although the prayer was nonsectarian and noncompulsory, “it is no part the business of government to compose official prayers.” Because New York provided the prayer, it indirectly approved religion and that was unconstitutional.
Gideon v. Wainwright, 1963
Defendants in criminal cases have an absolute right to counsel.
Too poor to afford a lawyer, Clarence Earl Gideon was convicted for breaking into a poolroom—a felony crime in Florida. He appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the government must provide free counsel to accused criminals who cannot pay for it themselves. At first, the ruling applied to felonies only. It was later extended to cover any cases where the penalty was six months imprisonment or longer.
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 1964
To win a libel case, public figures must prove “actual malice” on the part of the writer.
In 1964, the Times published an ad critical of an elected commissioner of an Alabama city. The commissioner sued for libel and won. The Supreme Court overturned that ruling, and said that, to ensure “uninhibited, robust and wide-open” debate about public figures, the law must protect writers from libel suits. Thus, unless the words are penned with “knowing falsity” or “reckless disregard for the truth,” a writer cannot be successfully sued by a public figure for libel.
Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965
The Constitution implies a right to privacy in matters of contraception between married people.
Estelle Griswold, the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic, broke an 1879 Connecticut law banning contraception. The Court struck down the law, making it a landmark case in which the Court read the Constitution to protect individual privacy. This was to be the foundation of further privacy rulings, including the right to privacy in matters of abortion.
Miranda v. Arizona, 1966
“You have the right to remain silent ...”
After police questioning, Ernesto Miranda confessed to kidnapping and raping a woman. The Court struck down his conviction, on grounds that he was not informed of his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. Hereafter, the Miranda warnings have been a standard feature of arrest procedures.
Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969
School dress codes are not in violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of expression.
The Des Moines public school system made a rule stating that any student wearing an armband would be asked
to remove it on the grounds that the wearing of such would cause a disturbance. If the student refused to comply, the consequence was suspension from school. Three public school students wore black armbands to express their opposition to the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. They refused to remove the armbands and were suspended. The parents of the students argued that the students’ actions were not interfering with the rights of the other students. The case was argued in 1968 and the ruling was “handed down” in 1969. The Court ruled that the wearing of armbands was “closely akin to ‘pure speech’”, and this was protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. The rule banning armbands lacked the proper justification for enforcement. This ruling eventually had an effect on school dress codes in that the style of clothing one wears indicates an expression of that individual.
San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 1973
The Constitution does not guarantee a fundamental right to education.
In 1968, a group of low-income parents sued San Antonio, claiming the city’s wealthy precincts had better schools. The Court upheld the districting plan, saying that the Constitution did not guarantee an education, and upholding this tenet: The Constitution does not compel government to provide services like education or welfare to the people. Rather, it places boundaries on government action.
Roe v. Wade, 1973
The Constitutionally implied right to privacy protects a woman’s choice in matters of abortion.
Norma McCorvey sought an abortion in Texas, but was denied under state law. The Court struck down that law, on grounds that it unconstitutionally restricted the woman’s right to choose. The opinion set forth guidelines for state abortion regulations; states could restrict a woman’s right to choose only in the later stages of the pregnancy. Later modified but not overruled, the decision stands as one of the Court’s most controversial.
United States v. Nixon, 1974
“Neither separation of powers, nor the need for confidentiality can sustain unqualified Presidential immunity from the judicial process.”
President Nixon sought precisely this type of immunity, rather than relinquishing the famous White House tapes during the Watergate scandal. The Court unanimously rejected his plea as an unconstitutional power play. The House began impeachment proceedings shortly thereafter, and two weeks after the ruling, Nixon resigned.
Texas v. Johnson, 1989
The Constitution protects desecration of the flag as a form of symbolic speech.
Johnson burned a flag in front of a Dallas building in 1984. He was convicted of violating a Texas law that made it a crime to intentionally desecrate a state or national flag. Justice Brennan wrote for a 5-to-4 majority that “Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
Cruzan v. Missouri Dept. of Health, 1990
While the Constitution protects a person’s right to reject life-preserving medical treatment (their “right to die”), states can regulate that interest if the regulation is reasonable.
Nancy Cruzan lay in a permanent vegetative state as a result of injuries suffered in an auto accident. Her parents sought to withdraw life-sustaining treatment and allow her to die, claiming she’d said this would be her wish under such circumstances. The state refused, and the Supreme Court upheld the state’s guidelines for the continuation of medical treatment, which allowed withdrawal of treatment only with clear and convincing evidence that this is what the patient would have wanted. The Court said that, given the need to protect against abuses of such situations, the state can continue life support as long as its standards for doing so are reasonable.
Bethel School District #43 v. Fraser (1987)
Holding: Students do not have a First Amendment right to make obscene speeches in school.
Matthew N. Fraser, a student at Bethel High School, was suspended for three days for delivering an obscene and provocative speech to the student body. In this speech, he nominated his fellow classmate for an elected school office. The Supreme Court held that his free speech rights were not violated.
Board of Education of Independent School District #92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls (2002)
Holding: Random drug tests of students involved in extracurricular activities do not violate the Fourth Amendment.
In Veronia School District v. Acton (1995), the Supreme Court held that random drug tests of student athletes do not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures. Some schools then began to require drug tests of all students in extracurricular activities. The Supreme Court in Earls upheld this practice.
Cooper v. Aaron (1958)
Holding: States cannot nullify decisions of the federal courts.
Several government officials in southern states, including the governor and legislature of Alabama, refused to follow the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. They argued that the states could nullify federal court decisions if they felt that the federal courts were violating the Constitution. The Court unanimously rejected this argument and held that only the federal courts can decide when the Constitution is violated.
Engel v. Vitale (1962)
Holding: School initiated-prayer in the public school system violates the First Amendment.
In the New York school system, each day began with a nondenominational prayer acknowledging dependence upon God. This action was challenged in Court as an unconstitutional state establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed, stating that the government could not sponsor such religious activities.
Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
Holding: Indigent defendants must be provided representation without charge.
Gideon was accused of committing a felony. Being indigent, he petitioned the judge to provide him with an attorney free of charge. The judge denied his request. The Supreme Court ruled for Gideon, saying that the Sixth Amendment requires indigent criminal defendants to be provided an attorney free of charge.
Goss v. Lopez (1975)
Holding: Students are entitled to certain due process rights.
Nine students at an Ohio public school received 10-day suspensions for disruptive behavior without due process protections. The Supreme Court ruled for the students, saying that once the state provides an education for all of its citizens, it cannot deprive them of it without ensuring due process protections.
Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)
Holding: Colleges and universities have a legitimate interest in promoting diversity.
Barbara Grutter alleged that her Equal Protection rights were violated when the University of Michigan Law School's attempt to gain a diverse student body resulted in the denial of her admission's application. The Supreme Court disagreed and held that institutions of higher education have a legitimate interest in promoting diversity.
Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988)
Holding: Administrators may edit the content of school newspapers.
The principal of Hazelwood East High School edited two articles in the school paper The Spectrum that he deemed inappropriate. The student authors argued that this violated their First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The Supreme Court disagreed, stating that administrators can edit materials that reflect school values.
New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985)
Holding: Students have a reduced expectation of privacy in school.
A teacher accused T.L.O. of smoking in the bathroom. When she denied the allegation, the principal searched her purse and found cigarettes and marijuana paraphernalia. A family court declared T.L.O. a delinquent. The Supreme Court ruled that her rights were not violated since students have reduced expectations of privacy in school.
Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)
Holding: Students may not use a school's loudspeaker system to offer student-led, student-initiated prayer.
Before football games, members of the student body of a Texas high school elected one of their classmates to address the players and spectators. These addresses were conducted over the school's loudspeakers and usually involved a prayer. Attendance at these events was voluntary. Three students sued the school arguing that the prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. A majority of the Court rejected the school's argument that since the prayer was student initiated and student led, as opposed to officially sponsored by the school, it did not violate the First Amendment. The Court held that this action did constitute school-sponsored prayer because the loudspeakers that the students used for their invocations were owned by the school.
Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)
Holding: Students do not leave their rights at the schoolhouse door.
To protest the Vietnam War, Mary Beth Tinker and her brother wore black armbands to school. Fearing a disruption, the administration prohibited wearing such armbands. The Tinkers were removed from school when they failed to comply, but the Supreme Court ruled that their actions were protected by the First Amendment.
Zelma v. Simmons-Harris (2002)
Holding: Certain school voucher programs are constitutional.
The Ohio Pilot Scholarship Program allowed certain Ohio families to receive tuition aid from the state. This would help offset the cost of tuition at private, including parochial (religiously affiliated), schools. The Supreme Court rejected First Amendment challenges to the program and stated that such aid does not violate the Establishment Clause.