Skip to main content

Main Area

Main

Landmark Supreme Court cases and how they affect you

  • Landmark Supreme Court cases and Chief Justices of the time

    In the wake of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death on Sept. 18, President Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to take Ginsburg's place. Barrett is widely seen as a conservative judge, which has led numerous Democratic politicians to voice concern that she may very well tip the scales when the Supreme Court hears arguments on the Affordable Care Act Nov. 10, just a week after the 2020 election. In doing so, Barrett's vote could theoretically cause the Affordable Care Act to be repealed and leave millions of Americans without health care. That vote underscores the gravity of Supreme Court decisions and how they can dramatically shape day-to-day life for Americans.

    The democratic institution of the Supreme Court is tasked with remaining neutral, interpreting the Constitution based on legality and not political ideology. Who sits on the Supreme Court matters because the federal court determines how laws are enforced across the nation, and the judicial branch keeps a check on the executive and legislative branches. The Supreme Court’s rulings have given women the right to reproductive rights, required police officers to inform suspects of their rights, and allowed citizens the right to carry handguns for self-defense.

    Stacker used information from the law project Oyez, Justia’s U.S. Supreme Court Center, and news reports on Supreme Court decisions to come up with this list of 35 landmark Supreme Court cases. Read on to see just how influential the Court has been for more than 200 years, and how decisions made between 1803 and 2020 can still impact you today.

    You may also like: Youngest and oldest presidents in U.S. history

  • Marbury v. Madison

    - Topic of case: judicial review
    - Case decided on: Feb. 24, 1803
    - Vote tally: 4–0 (unanimous) decision for Marbury
    - Justices who concurred: John Marshall, William Paterson, Samuel Chase, Bushrod Washington
    - Justices who dissented: none
    - Chief Justice at the time: John Marshall

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    In this 1803 case, the Supreme Court established judicial review after then-Secretary of State James Madison failed to deliver a Justice of the Peace commission to William Marbury following Thomas Jefferson's elections. The Court held that the provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that allowed Madison to bring his complaint was unconstitutional.

    Chief Justice John Marshall held that any law that conflicted with the Constitution would then be rendered “null and void.”

    How this affects you: This decision made the Supreme Court what it is today, putting the judicial branch on equal footing with the legislative and executive branches. Judicial review is integral to our system of checks and balances.

  • McCulloch v. Maryland

    - Topic of case: implied powers of the federal government
    - Case decided on: March 6, 1819
    - Vote tally: 6–0 (unanimous) decision for McCulloch
    - Justices who concurred: John Marshall, Bushrod Washington, William Johnson, H. Brockholst Livingston, Gabriel Duvall, Joseph Story
    - Justices who dissented: none
    - Chief Justice at the time: John Marshall

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    In 1816, Congress chartered the Second Bank of the United States. The state of Maryland tried to impose taxes on the bank. In a unanimous decision under Chief Justice John Marshall, the Court held that the Necessary and Proper Clause gave Congress the authority to establish a national bank. The Court also held that states cannot have power over the federal government.

    Chief Justice Marshall clarified the Necessary and Proper Clause, expanding the power of Congress to those implied—but not directly stated—by the Constitution.

    How this affects you: This case gave more powers to the federal government and allowed for more interpretation of the Constitution that went beyond what was specifically written down.

  • Dred Scott v. Sandford

    - Topic of case: legal emancipation and citizenship of enslaved people
    - Case decided on: March 6, 1857
    - Vote tally: 7–2 decision for Sanford
    - Justices who concurred: Roger B. Taney, James M. Wayne, John Catron, Peter V. Daniel, Samuel Nelson, Robert C. Grier, John A. Campbell
    - Justices who dissented: John McLean, Benjamin R. Curtis
    - Chief Justice at the time: Roger B. Taney

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    In 1857, Dred Scott, once an enslaved person in Missouri, argued in court that he should be free after living in Illinois, where slavery wasn’t allowed. The Court held that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves,” whether a slave or not, wasn’t an American citizen and couldn’t sue in federal court.

    In an opinion written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Court also ruled that they did not have the jurisdiction to ban slavery in U.S. territories, and the rights of slave owners were protected under the Fifth Amendment because slaves were considered property.

    How this affects you: This is one of the cases that highlighted just how worthless some considered the lives of enslaved Americans in the 1800s, and speaks to the attitudes of even the highest court in the land on whether enslaved people were actually people, or “property.”

  • Plessy v. Ferguson

    - Topic of case: "separate but equal" doctrine
    - Case decided on: May 18, 1896
    - Vote tally: 7–1 decision for Ferguson
    - Justices who concurred: Melville Fuller, Stephen J. Field, Horace Gray, Henry B. Brown, George Shiras Jr., Edward D. White, Rufus W. Peckham
    - Justices who dissented: John M. Harlan
    - Chief Justice at the time: Melville Fuller

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    Under the Separate Car Act, Louisiana required Black and white passengers to ride in different railroad cars. In 1892, Homer Plessy, who was considered Black but was also seven-eighths Caucasian, challenged the act. Railroad companies didn’t like the policy either—they had to buy more cars. Plessy’s lawyers claimed the act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, but he was convicted anyway.

    The Court, under Chief Justice Henry Billings Brown, upheld Plessy’s conviction, arguing that segregation imposed by the states was constitutional. Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented, saying that all citizens should have equal access to civil rights.

    How this affects you: Even though this ruling has since been overturned, the effects of this decision can still be seen today. Plessy v. Ferguson condoned segregation, and allowed for lawmakers and businesses to create facilities that were subpar for Black Americans, even though they were considered “equal.” This was an easy way of limiting the rights of people based on race, even after the Civil War ended.

  • Korematsu v. United States

    - Topic of case: internment of Japanese Americans during WWII
    - Case decided on: Dec. 18, 1944
    - Vote tally: 6–3 decision for United States
    - Justices who concurred: Harlan F. Stone, Hugo Black, Stanley F. Reed, Felix Frankfurter, Robert H. Jackson, Wiley B. Rutledge
    - Justices who dissented: Owen Roberts, William O. Douglas, Frank Murphy
    - Chief Justice at the time: Harlan F. Stone

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, the U.S. government kept Japanese Americans in internment camps from 1942 to 1945. Japanese American Fred Korematsu, who stayed in his residence instead of going to the camps, was arrested and convicted for violating Executive Order 9066 to relocate. He argued the order violated the Fifth Amendment.

    Citing Hirabayashi v. U.S., the Supreme Court decided in favor of the United States. The Court, under Chief Justice Harlan Stone, held that the order wasn’t racist. It was an effort aimed at protecting the U.S., particularly those on the West Coast.

    The Justice Department issued a “confession of error” about the case in 2011, and the decision was formally repudiated by the Court in 2018.

    How this affects you: While the decision has been criticized by both common people and the Court, it was able to promote the idea that during a time of war, different types of military action is acceptable if the action supposedly protects the safety of the United States.

     

  • Brown v. Board of Education

    - Topic of case: segregation of public schools on the basis of race
    - Case decided on: May 17, 1954
    - Vote tally: 9-0 (unanimous) for Brown et. al
    - Justices who concurred: Earl Warren, Hugo Black, Stanley F. Reed, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Robert H. Jackson, Harold H. Burton, Tom C. Clark, Sherman Minton
    - Justices who dissented: none
    - Chief Justice at the time: Earl Warren

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    Plessy v. Ferguson wasn’t challenged until 1954 when the Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion by a unanimous Court, which held that the “separate but equal” policy was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment. Warren, who became progressively more liberal as he aged, wrote the opinion in a way he felt the general public would be able to understand by incorporating information from social science studies.

    How this affects you: This landmark case not only allowed students to go to the public schools they wanted regardless of their race, but struck down the notion “separate but equal” wasn’t an inherently racist, segregatory tactic. It was an important win in the civil rights movement of the 20th century.

  • Cooper v. Aaron

    - Topic of case: federal court orders versus states' rights
    - Case decided on: Sept. 12, 1958
    - Vote tally: 9-0 (unanimous)
    - Justices who concurred: Earl Warren, Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, Harold H. Burton, Tom C. Clark, John M. Harlan II, William J. Brennan Jr., Charles E. Whittaker
    - Justices who dissented: none
    - Chief Justice at the time: Earl Warren

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    Some Arkansas officials refused to abide by the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education to integrate their schools in 1958. In a unanimous decision with a per curiam opinion—meaning every judge wrote an opinion—under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court held that it was unconstitutional to deprive Black students of equal protection under the law. Since Marbury v. Madison made the Supreme Court the ultimate law, all states were bound by the Brown decision.

    How this affects you: This ruling established and highlighted the power of the Supreme Court as being the final say on all laws. This also started the conversation on not just federal right versus state rights, but also state rights versus the power of the Court.

  • Mapp v. Ohio

    - Topic of case: illegal police searches violating Fourth Amendment
    - Case decided on: June 19, 1961
    - Vote tally: 6–3 decision for Dollree Mapp
    - Justices who concurred: Earl Warren, Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, Tom C. Clark, William J. Brennan Jr., Potter Stewart
    - Justices who dissented: John M. Harlan II, Felix Frankfurter, Charles E. Whittaker
    - Chief Justice at the time: Earl Warren

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    Dollree Mapp was convicted of possessing obscene materials after police confiscated them during an illegal search of her home. The Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, held that evidence obtained during an illegal search and seizure was a violation of the Fourth Amendment and inadmissible in a state court.

    How this affects you: This case was one of a series of cases that tested the limits of the Fourth Amendment. Mapp v. Ohio was an important win for criminal defense as it put pressure on the law enforcement to obtain a warrant for any and all incriminating evidence for it to be held up in court.

  • Engel v. Vitale

    - Topic of case: prayers in public schools
    - Case decided on: June 25, 1962
    - Vote tally: 6–1 decision for Engel
    - Justices who concurred: Earl Warren, Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, Tom C. Clark, John M. Harlan II, William J. Brennan Jr.
    - Justices who dissented: Potter Stewart
    - Chief Justice at the time: Earl Warren

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    The New York State Board of Regents was challenged after it allowed the reciting of a voluntary prayer before the start of school. The Court ruled that this was not a proper separation of church and state. Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, Justice Hugo L. Black authored the opinion holding that public schools cannot hold prayers because it is a violation of the Establishment Clause.

    How this affects you: This case made sure that public schools stayed secular, both by not imposing a certain religion on students and by not having voluntary prayer in these schools, which is still in effect today.

  • Gideon v. Wainwright

    - Topic of case: Sixth Amendment's right to counsel in criminal cases
    - Case decided on: March 18, 1963
    - Vote tally: 9–0 (unanimous) decision for Clarence Earl Gideon
    - Justices who concurred: Earl Warren, Hugo Black, William O. Douglas, Tom C. Clark, John M. Harlan II, William J. Brennan Jr., Potter Stewart, Byron White, Arthur Goldberg
    - Justices who dissented: none
    - Chief Justice at the time: Earl Warren

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    Clarence Earl Gideon was denied the right to an attorney after he was charged with felony breaking and entering. Under Florida law at the time, state-appointed attorneys were only guaranteed for capital cases. In the Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, Justice Hugo L. Black issued a unanimous opinion ruling that criminal defendants in state court have a right to appointed counsel if they can’t afford one under the Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment.

    How this affects you: Like Miranda v. Arizona, this case definitively gives defendants of all felonies the right to an attorney. Now, if a defendant asks for an attorney, and confessions were obtained or a trial still happened without an attorney, defendants can argue that they were improperly represented and throw out certain evidence or even a trial’s decision.

     

2018 All rights reserved.