Supreme Court Cases

This section of my website contains all of the Landmark Supreme Court Cases that are important for you to know! The Supreme Court's ruling are in bold.

Marbury v. Madison, 1803

"A law repugnant to the Constitution is void.”

With these words, Chief Justice John Marshall established the Supreme Court’s role in the new government. Hereafter, the Court was recognized as having the power to review all acts of Congress where constitutionality was at issue, and judge whether they abide by the Constitution.

McCulloch v. Maryland, 1819

“ Let the end be legitimate ... and all means which are ... consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution, are constitutional."

Chief Justice Marshall invoked this phrase to establish the right of Congress to pass laws that are “necessary and proper” to conduct the business of the U.S. government. Here, the court upheld Congress’ power to create a national bank.

Gibbons v. Ogden, 1824

When a federal and state law are in conflict, the federal law is supreme.

Congress and New York had both passed laws regulating the steamboat industry. Gibbons had a federal permit for a steamboat business; Ogden had a state permit for the same waters. Siding with Gibbons, the Court said that, in matters of interstate commerce, the “Supremacy Clause” tilts the balance of power in favor of federal legislation.

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 suite sit 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.

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.

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.

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 entered 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.

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 non compulsory, “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.

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.”


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