Judges are the leaders of the court and the most distinguished figure within the judicial system. Judges do not make law; they rather interpret existing law made by the legislature. Most judges get their start as attorneys, work at the state level and, if they’re lucky, reach the Federal courts. Their influence on law is substantial and their decisions decide how laws work and how they are enforced. Here are 10 unforgettable judges whose decisions made a difference in our nation’s history:
- John Marshall
John Marshall (1755-1835) was the fourth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and arguably one of the most influential judges to the American legal system. Marshall is remembered for his establishment of judicial review, which gave courts the right to strike down laws that violate the Constitution. The Marshall Court paved the way for several decisions relating to federalism and supremacy of federal law over state law.
- Benjamin N. Cardozo
Benjamin N. Cardozo (1870-1938) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1932 to 1938 and was nominated by President Hoover. Cardozo was remembered for his contributions to American common law and handing down often liberal opinions that stressed the 10th Amendment. Many of Cardozo’s landmark decisions were made when he was on the New York Court of Appeals, in which he focused on tort and contract rulings. He also made notable contributions to legal academia, such as giving the Storrs Lectures at Yale University, helping found the American Law Institute and writing several books that became standard literature within the legal profession.
- Warren E. Burger
Warren E. Burger (1907-1995) was a Chief Justice of the United States, who was nominated by President Nixon, and was most notably remembered for his controversial decisions on moral issues like abortion, capital punishment, gay marriage and school desegregation. Burger helped progress the juridical system when he wrote opinions that legally defined obscenity, forced President Nixon to release the Watergate tapes and helped end school segregation by implementing busing of students.
- William Rehnquist
William Rehnquist (1924-2005) served as Associate Justice and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1986 to 2005 and was nominated by President Reagan. Known for his conservative views, Rehnquist favored the idea of federalism that stressed the Tenth Amendment’s reservation of states’ powers and was a supporter of state-sanctioned prayer in public schools and capital punishment. As Chief Justice, Rehnquist made changes to the justices’ conferences in order to keep hearings on track and give even talking time. In 1988, Rehnquist lobbied Congress to give the Court control of its own docket, which limited mandatory appeals and certiorari grants.
- Richard Posner
Richard Posner (1939 – ) is currently a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago. Since his 1981 commission to this court, Posner has been an influential figure in the law and economics movement with his progressive and controversial views concerning antitrust policy changes, opposition to the right of privacy and favoring efficient breach of contracts. In addition to his contributions to academia as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, Posner is also a well accomplished legal writer with nearly 40 published books and articles.
- William J. Brennan, Jr.
William J. Brennan, Jr., (1906-1997) served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1956 to 1990 and was nominated by President Eisenhower. Brennan was an influential member of the Court and a leader for the liberal wing, specifically for his progressive views against the death penalty, support for abortion rights and expansion of individual and free speech rights. Brennan played a major role in America’s most groundbreaking and controversial cases, such as New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, Roe v. Wade, Roth v. United States and many others. Brennan’s undying support for individual rights and compelling arguments had the power to sway even the most conservative decisions and bargain for votes.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., (1841-1935) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932 and was nominated by President Theodore Roosevelt. Holmes was remembered as one of the most influential common law judges, who supported economic regulation, expansion of freedom of speech under the First Amendment and the legal realism movement. As the oldest justice in the history of the Supreme Court, Holmes played a leading role in many landmark cases, such as Schenck v. United States, in which the Court decided that the First Amendment did not protect the right to free speech against the draft during World War I, and Holmes’ ever-quotable “clear and present danger” majority opinion was born.
- Roger J. Traynor
Roger J. Traynor (1900-1983) was the 23rd Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California from 1964 to 1970, after serving 24 years as the Associate Justice of the Court. During his 30-year career on the California Supreme Court, Traynor influenced demographic, social and governmental growth within his state and throughout the nation. Traynor made history during the Perez v. Sharp case for being the first state supreme court to strike down a stature prohibiting miscegenation, in addition to his 1952 opinion that abolished the defense of recrimination for divorce, and his creation of strict liability in product liability cases. Traynor pushed the boundaries of judicial power, while resolving many social and public policy issues.
- Sandra Day O’Connor
Sandra Day O’Connor (1930 – ) made history when she became the first female Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1981 to 2006 and was appointed by President Reagan. O’Connor was known as the Court’s leading moderate and was often the swing vote for many cases. With this powerful role, O’Connor became the deciding vote for many landmark cases, such as Lawrence v. Texas, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services and United States v. Lopez, in which she shared both majority and dissenting opinions. O’Connor retired from the Court in 2006, but will be remembered for her contributions to the judicial system and paving the way for future women Supreme Court justices.
- Louis Brandeis
Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) was an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916 to 1939 and was nominated by President Wilson. While working as a lawyer in Boston, Brandeis developed the “right to privacy” concept in a Harvard Law Review and wrote a book called, Other People’s Money that spoke against monopolies, public corruption, mass consumerism and limiting the power or these large corporations. When Brandeis became a member of the Supreme Court, he took these progressive and controversial beliefs to the high court and defended freedom of speech, the right to privacy in Gilbert v. Minnesota, Whitney v. California and Olmstead v. United States, to name a few.