Influential Supreme Court decisions decided by one vote

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August 22, 2018
Erik Cox Photography // Shutterstock

Influential Supreme Court cases decided by one vote

As the highest court in the United States, the Supreme Court has many vital responsibilities—including determining whether a law or executive act violates the constitution, serving as the court of last resort, and protecting the civil liberties of Americans.

Since justices are nominated by presidents and serve for life, it makes choosing a new head of state that much more consequential. In fact, recent polling shows voters in 2016 were motivated to vote for Donald Trump with the hopes of getting a Republican justice on the Court. Their efforts have already paid off: Trump has appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, and with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, he is likely to get two picks during his first term.

History shows a single judge can swing a landmark case. One-vote decisions guaranteed same-sex marriage across the nation, required law enforcement to inform people of their rights, and allowed corporations the have the same political speech freedom as individuals.

To revisit these decisions, Stacker compiled a list of the 30 most influential Supreme Court cases decided by a single vote—first by running cases classified under each chief justice’s court through Wikimedia Tool Labs, and then gathering background from the law project Oyez. They were then ranked by the amount of Wikipedia page views each case has gathered in 2018. Read on to become familiar with how the top court in the country has influenced the law of the land.

ALSO: Explaining the most influential Supreme Court cases of the past term 

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daveynin // flickr

#30. Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing

Decided by: Vinson Court

Date decided: Feb. 10, 1947

Decisions: The New Jersey law reimbursing parents for transportation costs to parochial schools did not violate the Establishment Clause

Justice Hugo Black wrote the opinion on this case, which involved a New Jersey law that allowed school boards to reimburse transportation costs to and from private schools. The court determined that it did not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause—which prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion”—because it did not pay money to or directly support parochial schools. Instead, the money assisted parents of all religions who needed to transport their children to school. Parochial Catholic schools made up 96% of the private schools who benefitted from this decision.

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Jon S // flickr

#29. Near v. Minnesota

Decided by: Hughes Court

Date decided: June 1, 1931

Decisions: Under the Free Press Clause of the First Amendment, and with limited exceptions, the government may not censor or prohibit a publication in advance

Minnesota officials wanted a permanent injunction against The Saturday Press after the Minneapolis paper accused local officials of associating with gangsters. Officials claimed the story was a violation of the Public Nuisance Law because it was “malicious, scandalous, and defamatory.”  

The Court decided the Minnesota law violated the freedom of the press. The decision was notable because it was the first time the Supreme Court declared that "prior restraints" on publication violated the First Amendment.

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Everyone Sinks Starco // flickr

#28. Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc.

Decided by: Burger Court

Date decided: Jan. 18, 1983

Decisions: The sale of the video tape recorders to the general public does not constitute contributory infringement of Universal's copyrights

Known as “The Betamax Case,” Universal Studios sued Sony for copyright infringement because consumers could use Sony's VCR system to record programming released by Universal to “time-shift” when they watched network television. Justice John Paul Stevens delivered the opinion, stating that the public’s use of videotape recorders did not violate the Copyright Act. Without the Supreme Court's decision, consumers wouldn’t have been able to watch programming whenever they wanted—hard to fathom in an age driven by DVRs and on-demand digital content.

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Fibonacci Blue // flickr

#27. Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31

Decided by: Roberts Court

Date decided: June 27, 2018

Decisions: The State of Illinois’ extraction of agency fees from nonconsenting public-sector employees violates the First Amendment; Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed, 431 US 209 (1977), which held otherwise, is overruled

This 2018 decision overturned a 1977 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which allowed a public employer whose employees were represented by a union to require its employees who did not join the union—but benefitted from collective bargaining—to pay fees. The current ruling, supported by conservative justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Neil Gorsuch, states that “agency fees” are a violation of the First Amendment.

Justice Elena Kagan’s dissenting opinion (that Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer joined) criticized the majority—saying the ruling, which is considered to have undermined unions, would disrupt public-sector labor relations.

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Wellcome Images // Wikimedia Commons

#26. Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health

Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Date decided: June 25, 1990

Decisions: While individuals enjoyed the right to refuse medical treatment under the Due Process Clause, incompetent persons were not able to exercise such rights

Nancy Beth Cruzan was left in a "persistent vegetative state" after she was in a car accident and was kept alive with an artificial feeding tube. Missouri state officials refused to let her parents take her off life support without court approval. In this right-to-die case, the Court ruled that family members might not always act in the best interest of incompetent patients—people who lack the legal ability to make decisions for themselves—and withdrawing treatment couldn’t be undone. Without “clear and convincing” evidence that Cruzan wanted to die, her parents couldn’t withdraw the feeding tube. The case spurred passage of the Patient Self-Determination Act, which states that most health care institutions must give patients written information about advance directives, explaining which right-to-die options are available under their state law.

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U.S. Department of Agriculture // flickr

#25. Plyler v. Doe

Decided by: Burger Court

Date decided: June 15, 1982

Decisions: Illegal aliens and their children, though not citizens of the United States or Texas, are people "in any ordinary sense of the term" and, therefore, are afforded 14th Amendment protections

The Court struck down the Texas state law that denied an education to the children of illegal immigrants because it did not serve a "compelling state interest." The case was decided with Texas v. Certain Named and Unnamed Alien Children, which challenged a Texas statute that prohibited the use of state funds to educate immigrant children who are not "legally admitted" to the United States. Since the 1982 decision, lawmakers have moved away from using the term “illegal alien."

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Jeff Gunn // flickr

#24. Fisher v. University of Texas (2016)

Decided by: Roberts Court

Date decided: June 23, 2016

Decisions: The race-conscious admissions program in use at the time of the suit is legal under the Equal Protection Clause

After being denied admission to the University of Texas-Austin, a white woman named Abigail Fisher sued the school, claiming that considering race in the admissions process violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the majority opinion, stating that the University of Texas’s use of race as an admissions factor was constitutional because the school had set specific goals for the diversity of its student body that could not be achieved in any other way. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the decision because she did work related to the case during her time as solicitor general.

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U.S. Supreme Court, circa 1866 // Wikimedia Commons

#23. Slaughter-House Cases

Decided by: Chase Court

Date decided: April 14, 1873

Decisions: The Privileges and Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment applies to national citizenship, not to state citizenship

Louisiana passed a law that allowed a monopoly on slaughterhouses, angering local butchers who said they could no longer practice their trade. The case was the first time the Supreme Court interpreted the 14th Amendment, which says that no state “shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

The Court ruled that the monopoly did not violate the 13th or 14th Amendment because those were passed with the narrow intention of granting full equality to former slaves—and should only be interpreted by what is directly implicated in the Constitution. Justice Stephen Johnson Field’s dissent argued that the 14th Amendment didn’t only protect former slaves, and it needed a modern interpretation that looked past the Civil War era. The ruling paved the way for states to enforce Jim Crow laws.

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Erika Wittlieb // pixabay

#22. South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc.

Decided by: Roberts Court

Date decided: June 21, 2018

Decisions: A state may require sellers with no physical presence in the state to collect and remit sales tax for goods sold within the state

The decision reversed a 1992 ruling on Quill Corp. v. North Dakota that said sellers only had to collect state sales taxes if they had a warehouse or office in the state. Now online sellers like Amazon and Etsy will have to collect and remit sales tax, regardless of whether they have a physical store in the state. The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, stated that “modern e-commerce does not align analytically with a test that relies on the sort of physical presence” defined in the previous ruling.” Chief Justice John Roberts filed a dissenting opinion stating that "any alteration to those rules with the potential to disrupt such a critical segment of the economy should be undertaken by Congress.”

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Benson Kua // Wikimedia Commons

#21. Bowers v. Hardwick

Decided by: Burger Court

Date decided: June 30, 1986

Decisions: There was no constitutional protection for acts of sodomy, and that states could outlaw those practices

This case came to the Supreme Court after a Georgia police officer saw Michael Hardwick engaging in consensual sex with another man in Hardwick’s private bedroom. The Court upheld the Georgia law that barred sodomy, which refers to certain sexual acts regardless of gender, but is associated mostly with criminalizing homosexuality. The ruling was overturned by the Court in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down the Texas statute that made it a crime for two consenting adults of the same sex to engage in certain intimate acts. The Court stated, “Bowers was not correct when it was decided [and] it is not correct today.”

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Eric Fisher // flickr

#20. United States v. Lopez

Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Date decided: April 26, 1995

Decisions: The possession of a gun in a local school zone is not an economic activity that might, through repetition elsewhere, have a substantial effect on interstate commerce

After high school senior Alfonso Lopez carried a concealed weapon into his San Antonio, Texas, school, he was charged with violating the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. The act does not allow "any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that [he] knows … is a school zone." Lopez was found guilty following a bench trial and sentenced to six months of imprisonment and two years of supervised release. The Court ruled that Congress had unconstitutionally exceeded its power to legislate under the Commerce Clause.

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Andrew Horne // Wikimedia Commons

#19. Grutter v. Bollinger

Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Date decided: June 23, 2003

Decisions: The Equal Protection Clause does not prohibit the University of Michigan Law School's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor delivered the majority opinion in this case, saying the school’s policy to consider race in admissions is narrowly tailored and does not violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Equal Protection Clause. She wrote, "in the context of its individualized inquiry into the possible diversity contributions of all applicants, the Law School's race-conscious admissions program does not unduly harm nonminority applicants."

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skeeze // pixabay

#18. Carpenter v. United States

Decided by: Roberts Court

Date decided: June 22, 2018

Decisions: The government's acquisition of Carpenter's cell-site records constituted as a search violating the Fourth Amendment

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion holding that the government's warrantless acquisition of Timothy Ivory Carpenter's cell-site records violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch all filed dissenting opinions.

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#17. Morse v. Frederick

Decided by: Roberts Court

Date decided: June 25, 2007

Decisions: School officials can prohibit students from displaying messages that promote illegal drug use

Citing Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Ninth Circuit ruled that a student’s right to free speech was violated when he was suspended for displaying a pro-marijuana sign at a school-sponsored event. The Court reversed the Ninth Court’s decision. Chief Justice John Roberts's majority opinion held that while students have rights to political speech, they do not extend to messages that might have a negative effect on other students, like the promotion of drug use. The dissent argued that while the principal who suspended the student should have qualified immunity, the majority was "deaf to the constitutional imperative to permit unfettered debate, even among high-school students."

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#16. National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius

Decided by: Roberts Court

Date decided: June 28, 2012

Decisions: 2. The Commerce Clause does not empower Congress to legislate the individual mandate; 3. The Taxing and Spending Clause empowers Congress to legislate the individual mandate; 5. Absent the threat to withdraw Medicaid support, the Medicaid expansion remains permissible

The Court’s decision to uphold the individual mandate and expansion of Medicaid was a win for the Affordable Care Act. The Court held that the individual mandate is a tax and not one that is too severe or coercive. Some were surprised that Chief Justice John Roberts supported the ACA provisions.

*Two other decisions from this case were not decided by a single vote: 1. The Anti-Injunction Act does not bar consideration of the individual mandate issue (decided 9–0), and 4. The ACA's threat to withdraw all Medicaid support to the states is unconstitutionally coercive (decided 7–2).

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robert kelly // Wikimedia Commons

#15. Lochner v. New York

Decided by: Fuller Court

Date decided: April 17, 1905

Decisions: The Bakeshop Act violated "liberty of contract" protected by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment

The Court struck down the New York law that set a workday limit of 10 hours, specifically in the baking trade. The majority held that the employee and employer should be able to agree on their own contract, and working long hours would not be detrimental to a baker’s health. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent stated that maximum work hours were constitutional, an interpretation held today.

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#14. Miller v. California

Decided by: Burger Court

Date decided: June 21, 1973

Decisions: Obscene materials are not protected by the First Amendment, but the definition of "obscene material" is lessened

The Court held that mailing obscene materials is not protected by the First Amendment, but the ruling narrowed the broad definition of obscenity defined in Memoirs v. Massachusetts. To be criminally obscene, material must satisfy three factors: the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work as a whole appeals to the prurient interest; the work depicts or describes sexual conduct or excretory functions, as defined by state law, in an offensive way; and the work as a whole lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

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Shelka04 // Wikimedia Commons

#13. Roper v. Simmons

Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Date decided: March 1, 2005

Decisions: Standards of decency have evolved so that executing minors is "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment

Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the case’s opinion, which referenced the fact that most state legislatures and the international community were opposed to executing minors. The decision overturned Stanford v. Kentucky, which held that offenders older than 16 could be subject to capital punishment. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, as well as Justices Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Clarence Thomas all dissented.  

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Dsw4 // Wikimedia Commons

#12. Shelby County v. Holder

Decided by: Roberts Court

Date decided: June 25, 2013

Decisions: Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional

The Court held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which is aimed at protecting voter rights in districts with a history of racial discrimination, was outdated and unconstitutional. Justice Clarence Thomas concurred, adding that Section 5, which says states must get official approval before changing voting laws, was also unconstitutional because it put an undue burden on the states. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying there was still enough evidence of discrimination to justify the burden on the states. Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined in her dissent.

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outcast104 // flickr

#11. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

Decided by: Roberts Court

Date decided: June 30, 2014

Decisions: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows for-profit companies to deny contraception coverage to employees based on a religious objection

With this decision, the Court's majority struck down the Affordable Care Act mandate that required employers to cover FDA-approved contraceptives for their female employees. Houses of worship and companies with five or fewer people who control a majority share are exempt from the mandate. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent held that for-profit corporations shouldn’t be considered religious entities. Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen G. Breyer, and Justice Elena Kagan joined in the dissent.

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Davidlud // Wikimedia Commons

#10. United States v. Windsor

Decided by: Roberts Court

Date decided: June 26, 2013

Decisions: Defense of Marriage Act denies same-sex couples the rights that come from federal recognition of marriage, which are available to other couples with legal marriages under state law

The Court’s decision ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and that the federal government couldn’t discriminate against gay and lesbian married couples when determining federal benefits and protections. The ruling paved the way for other advances in gay rights, including not being excluded from jury selection based on sexual orientation.  

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Andrew Magill // Wikimedia Commons

#9. McDonald v. Chicago

Decided by: Roberts Court

Date decided: June 28, 2010

Decisions: The 14th Amendment makes the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense applicable to the states

Otis McDonald, among others, filed a suit against the city of Chicago and neighboring Oak Park as a challenge to their gun bans after the Supreme Court ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller. In Heller, the Court held that the District of Columbia’s handgun ban violated the Second Amendment, and that the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense was a “fundamental” and “deeply rooted” right. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, arguing that owning a personal firearm was not a "liberty" interest protected by the Due Process Clause.

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jnn1776 // flickr

#8. Texas v. Johnson

Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Date decided: June 21, 1989

Decisions: Gregory Lee Johnson's burning of a flag was protected expression under the First Amendment

The Court held that just because an audience is offended by how someone expresses themselves—like burning an American flag—it doesn’t mean their freedom of speech should be limited. The Court held that government cannot prohibit someone from expressing an idea just because society finds it disagreeable.

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Ken Piorkowski // Wikimedia Commons

#7. Furman v. Georgia

Decided by: Burger Court

Date decided: June 29, 1972

Decisions: The imposition of the death penalty in these cases constituted cruel and unusual punishment and violated the Constitution

A per curiam opinion was present for Furman v. Georgia, meaning all concurring justices contributed to the majority opinion instead of a single justice. Justice Potter Stewart wrote that the death penalty was "cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual." The decision temporarily halted the death penalty, noting that there weren’t set standards used to decide when the death sentence should be imposed and that there tended to be a racial bias against black defendants.

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Paul Sableman // flickr

#6. Kelo v. New London

Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Date decided: June 23, 2005

Decisions: The city's taking of private property to sell for private development qualified as a "public use" within the meaning of the takings clause

Even though the city of New London in Connecticut used eminent domain to take private property and sell it for private land development, the Court ruled in favor of the city. The purchase was part of an economic development plan, the Court held, so the city did not have to use the land literally for public use.

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#5. Tison v. Arizona

Decided by: Rehnquist Court

Date decided: April 21, 1987

Decisions: Anticipating lethal force is not enough to satisfy the “intent to kill” requirement, but the Tisons' major participation in the felony along with a reckless indifference to human life may be

The Court sent Tison v. Arizona back to lower courts to decide if Ricky and Raymond Tison had acted with a reckless indifference to human life when, in an attempt to help their father escape from prison, a family was killed by their accomplice. Consequently, the Supreme Court of Arizona decided their involvement was enough of an “intent” to qualify them for the death penalty. Justice William J. Brennan dissented, citing that the use of capital punishment is often arbitrary and that the death penalty is always cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and 14th Amendments.

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Gerald L. Nino // Wikimedia Commons

#4. Miranda v. Arizona

Decided by: Warren Court

Date decided: June 13, 1966

Decisions: The Fifth Amendment requires that law enforcement officials advise suspects of their right to remain silent and to obtain an attorney during interrogations while in police custody

The decision in Miranda v. Arizona led to the creation of the Miranda Warning, in which suspects are required to be informed of their right to remain silent and to obtain an attorney before interrogation. If someone isn’t read their rights, any evidence obtained is inadmissible in court. Justice Thomas C. Clark dissented, arguing that the ruling is a strict reading of the Fifth Amendment and puts too much burden on police officers.  

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#3. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Decided by: Roberts Court

Date decided: Jan. 21, 2010

Decisions: 1. The First Amendment protects the right to free speech, despite the speaker’s corporate identity; 2. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act's restrictions on advertisements regarding Citizens United’s film "Hillary" do not violate the First Amendment

Two opinions were written by the justices on this infamous case, with a vote of 5-4 each. The majority held that political speech is vital to a democracy, even if it is coming from a corporation. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, arguing that corporations aren’t people and their influence in elections should be limited.

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#2. Obergefell v. Hodges

Decided by: Roberts Court

Date decided: June 26, 2015

Decisions: The 14th Amendment requires both marriage licensing and recognition for same-sex couples

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the opinion that held that Due Process Clause in the 14th Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause guarantees the right to marry—a fundamental liberty—to same-sex couples. Chief Justice Roberts wrote a dissent arguing that since the Constitution does not directly address same-sex marriage, the Court can’t decide whether states have to recognize or issue licenses for them. Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas also said the Court did not have jurisdiction over what they viewed as a state matter.

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Hmaag // Wikimedia Commons

#1. District of Columbia v. Heller

Decided by: Roberts Court

Date decided: June 26, 2008

Decisions: The ban on registering handguns and the requirement to keep guns in the home disassembled or nonfunctional with a trigger lock mechanism violate the Second Amendment

This case was the first time since the 1939 United States v. Miller case that the Court took a deeper look into the Second Amendment. The Court held that banning the registration of handguns and requiring them to be nonfunctional violated the Second Amendment and people’s ability to protect their home. Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen G. Breyer wrote separate dissents saying the Second Amendment was not aimed at protecting the right to bear arms for civilians without restriction.  

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