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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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.
#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."
#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.
#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.
#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.”
#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.”2018 All rights reserved.