10 Most Famous Court Cases
Over the last 200 years, the Supreme Court has made decisions that ended segregation, secured women’s rights and protected civil liberties that we cherish still today. Out of the hundreds of landmark cases heard every year, there are few cases that inspire, teach and define our nation’s history more than these 10:
- Marbury v. Madison
Marbury v. Madison is one of the most well-known and studied Supreme Court cases in American history. This Court decision established judicial review, which allows the judicial branch to review and nullify the actions of the legislative and executive branches, therefore, exercising the separation of powers among the three branches of government. Marbury v. Madison challenged this idea, when President John Adams federally appointed William Marbury as the Justice of Peace at the end of his presidential term, but his Secretary of State failed to deliver the documents. When Thomas Jefferson became president, he told his Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver Marbury’s commission because he didn’t want members of the opposing political party to take office. Marbury sued Madison and the case went to the Supreme Court, in which Chief Justice John Marshall made the Judiciary Act of 1789 unconstitutional, because it gave the Supreme Court authority that was denied within the Constitution. This was the first time the Supreme Court struck down a law because it was deemed unconstitutional.
- McCulloch v. Maryland
McCulloch v. Maryland established that sovereignty remains in the United States and not within the individual states. This historic Supreme Court decision ruled that Congress had the right, as implied in the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution, to create the Second Bank of the United States, but the state of Maryland did not have the power to tax the bank in an effort to stop operation. Chief Justice John Marshall presided over the case, which also granted Congress the ability to pass laws that would execute its enumerated powers, such as regulate interstate commerce, collect taxes and borrow money.
- Roe v. Wade
Roe v. Wade was the landmark Supreme Court case that discussed the issue of abortion. Jane Roe, a single pregnant woman, filed a class action lawsuit against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade, in order to challenge the constitutionality of the Texas criminal abortion laws which made aborting a fetus a felony, unless the woman’s health was at risk. The Court upheld the constitutional right to privacy and a woman’s decision to have an abortion. The case also stated that it is the right of states to regulate abortions, based on protecting prenatal life and the mother’s health. State regulation is determined by the mother’s current trimester of pregnancy. Roe v. Wade is arguably the most controversial Supreme Court decision in history and is constantly fought to be overturned.
- Brown v. Board of Education
Brown v. Board of Education was a monumental case for the civil rights movement and attaining racial equality. During the 1950s, a large amount of schools were segregated by race. This was the case in Topeka, Kansas, where Linda Brown, her sister and other black students were denied access to nearby segregated white schools. The Topeka NAACP filed a case on the behalf of a group of 13 parents and 20 children who believed their Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated by the segregated school system. This class action suit was named after one of the plaintiffs, Oliver Brown. The case was taken to the Federal district court, but segregation was upheld because the court claimed all white and non-white students had similar buildings, transportation, curricula and accessibility. The case reached the Supreme Court and the Browns insisted that segregated school will never be equal. The Court decided that school segregation was unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
- Gideon v. Wainwright
The right to have an attorney appointed to you, in the event that you cannot afford one, was not always a constitutional right. In the Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, a Florida man, Clarence Earl Gideon, was arrested after being spotted near a burglary scene and was unable to afford a lawyer to represent him in court. When he asked a Florida Circuit Court judge to appoint a lawyer for him, he was denied and forced to represent himself. Gideon did not defend himself in court, was found guilty and sentenced to a Florida state prison. Gideon pleaded for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case, which it agreed to and unanimously agreed that Gideon’s rights were violated because the Sixth Amendment required state courts to appoint lawyers for defendants who cannot afford counsel.
- Miranda v. Arizona
You may know or have heard the following sentences: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?” These are the Miranda rights that every police office must give suspects during their arrest. Miranda v. Arizona was the Supreme Court case that made these rights a customary practice among U.S. police force. The case came about because of Ernesto Miranda, who was arrested for rape and kidnapping in Phoenix, but was not informed by police of his Fifth or Sixth Amendment rights against self-incrimination or the assistance of a lawyer. The Supreme Court decided that the Arizona police did not follow the designated steps to inform Miranda that he has the right to remain silent and be appointed a lawyer if he cannot afford one.
- Gibbons v. Ogden
The Supreme Court case, Gibbons v. Ogden, determined that the federal government has sole power over interstate commerce. The case originated because of a state law that gave a New York steamship company a monopoly by allowing them to use the state’s waterways for business. Aaron Ogden was one of the business investors, who held a license under the monopoly, allowing him to access these waters. Another steamship trader, Thomas Gibbons, planned to use the same waterways to do his business, but was denied access despite having a federal coasting license that had been issued by Congress. Gibbons sued Ogden and the case went to the Supreme Court, which decided the federal commerce clause took precedence over the state law.
- Dred Scott v. Sandford
Dred Scott v. Sandford, was an important case in the fight for equality and abolishment of slavery. The Supreme Court case involved Dred Scott, a slave who was purchased in Missouri and brought to Illinois, which was a free, non-slave state. Scott moved with his owners to Minnesota, where slavery had been prohibited, and back to Missouri. After his owner died, Scott sued the widow and claimed he was no longer a slave because he was freed while living in a non-slave state. The Supreme Court decided that Scott was not a citizen of the state and blacks cannot become citizens, nor do slaves become free when taken into free states.
- Plessy v. Ferguson
The Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, originated because of a Louisiana statute, called the Separate Car Act that forced all rail companies in Louisiana to provide separate but equal accommodations for white and non-white passengers. Violation of the car act would result in a fine of $25 or 20 days in jail. In 1892, passenger Homer Plessy boarded a car that was designated for white passengers only. Although Plessy was only one-eighth black, he was told to move to the colored car, and when he refused in an act of planned disobedience, he was arrested and jailed. Plessy argued in state court that the East Louisiana Railroad denied him of his Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Judge John Howard Ferguson presided over the case and ruled that Louisiana was right to regulate railroad companies within the state boundaries. Plessy took his case to the Supreme Court, which decided that racial segregation is constitutional under the separate but equal doctrine.
- Texas v. Johnson
The Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson extended the First Amendment rights to protect symbolic speech. During a political demonstration for the Republican National Convention in Texas, Gregory Lee Johnson set the American flag on fire. No one was injured or in immediate danger by his demonstration, but many witnesses were offended and Johnson was charged and convicted for desecration of a venerated object. The Supreme Court overruled the Texas Penal Code violation, and decided Johnson’s demonstration was a form of symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment.
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