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Landmark Supreme Court cases and how they affect you

  • Texas v. Johnson

    - Topic of case: burning US flag as a form of expression
    - Case decided on: June 21, 1989
    - Vote tally: 5–4 decision for Johnson
    - Justices who concurred: William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy
    - Justices who dissented: William Rehnquist, Byron White, John P. Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor
    - Chief Justice at the time: William Rehnquist

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag in protest outside of the 1984 Republican National Convention. Texas law at the time made flag desecration illegal. The Court, under Chief Justice William Rehnquist who dissented, held that flag burning should be a form of “symbolic speech” protected by the First Amendment. The Court also held that the government can’t restrict speech and ideas just because some parts of society find them offensive.

    How this affects you: As a result of the Court ruling, lawmakers have tried to still impose a law that would criminalize burning the flag, whether as a sign of protest or expression, but this has not been successful and sometimes ends with more flag-burning cases than usual. First Amendment protections have seldom been curtailed, but rather increased.

  • Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health

    - Topic of case: family terminating life support for an individual against state's wishes
    - Case decided on: June 25, 1990
    - Vote tally: 5–4 decision
    - Justices who concurred: William Rehnquist, Byron White, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy
    - Justices who dissented: William J. Brennan Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, John P. Stevens
    - Chief Justice at the time: William Rehnquist

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    After a car accident, Nancy Beth Cruzan was left in a "persistent vegetative state." Missouri state officials wouldn’t allow Cruzan’s parents to take her off an artificial feeding tube without court approval. This was the first right-to-die case presented to the Court.

    The Court ruled that individuals have the right to refuse medical treatment, but that does not extend to incompetent persons who aren’t able to make that decision for themselves. Without “clear and convincing” evidence that Cruzan wanted to die, her parents couldn’t end life support.

    How this affects you: The decision, made under Chief Justice William Rehnquist, spurred many states to adopt advance directive laws that would allow patients to give instructions about their end-of-life decisions if they are rendered incapacitated.

  • Bush v. Gore

    - Topic of case: Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election
    - Case decided on: Dec. 12, 2000
    - Vote tally: Multiple decisions for George W. Bush
    - Justices who concurred: William Rehnquist, John P. Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer
    - Chief Justice at the time: William Rehnquist

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    In the 2000 presidential election, Vice President Al Gore, who ran as a Democratic candidate for president, contested the voting results in Florida. On Dec. 8, 2000, the Florida Supreme Court ordered that the Circuit Court in Leon County hand-count 9,000 contested ballots from Miami-Dade County. Then-Gov. George Bush requested that the U.S. Supreme Court review the matter.

    The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush, holding that the Florida recount was unconstitutional because the Equal Protection Clause guarantees voters that their ballots cannot be devalued by "later arbitrary and disparate treatment." Chief Justice William Rehnquist argued that the Florida recount violated the Constitution because the Florida Supreme Court's decision had created new election law, which only the state legislature may do.

    How this affects you: The case, often considered a singular ruling and not a precedent, has been cited often when it comes to legal questions about elections. The Court was criticized for getting involved in politics this way, and mass media caused this case to be one of the most publicized court cases, which still begs the question of how much can public opinion sway certain SCOTUS decisions to be made.

  • Grutter v. Bollinger

    - Topic of case: use of racial preferences in student admissions
    - Case decided on: June 23, 2003
    - Vote tally: 5–4 decision for Bollinger
    - Justices who concurred: John P. Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer
    - Justices who dissented: William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas
    - Chief Justice at the time: William Rehnquist

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    Michigan resident Barbara Grutter, a white woman, applied for admission to the University of Michigan Law School in 1997. Grutter’s application was denied despite her high GPA and LSAT score. The law school admitted race was a factor in their admissions decisions because the school had a “compelling interest in achieving diversity among its student body.”

    Under Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Court held that the Equal Protection Clause does not prevent the law school’s narrow use of race when factoring which students to admit. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor 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 non-minority applicants."

    How this affects you: Unlike the Bakke case, Grutter had less standing because the University of Michigan used a holistic process to consider its law school candidates. Many schools have adopted this holistic approach to admissions, rather than looking at just grades and test scores, to produce a diverse student population filled with students from different backgrounds and with various talents. It also maintained that affirmative action in admissions processes is legal, as that is just one of many aspects considered when looking at a potential student.

  • Lawrence v. Texas

    - Topic of case: sexual intimacy between same-sex couples
    - Case decided on: June 26, 2003
    - Vote tally: 6–3 decision for Lawrence
    - Justices who concurred: John P. Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer
    - Justices who dissented: William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas
    - Chief Justice at the time: William Rehnquist

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    After a report of gunshots, Houston police entered a home and found two men engaging in a consensual sex act. The men were arrested and convicted of violating a Texas statute that banned such acts between those of the same sex. The State Court of Appeals held that the statute was not unconstitutional, citing Bowers v. Hardwick, which held that there was no constitutional right to sodomy.

    Under Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Court overturned Bowers v. Hardwick. The Court struck down the Texas statute that made it illegal for two people of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct. The case was championed by gay rights advocates.

    How this affects you: This case was a win for both privacy and the LGBTQ+ community, as adults who engage in consensual intimate acts have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their homes, no matter the race or sexual orientation of the people involved.

     

  • Roper v. Simmons

    - Topic of case: death penalty for minors
    - Case decided on: March 1, 2005
    - Vote tally: 5–4 decision
    - Justices who concurred: John P. Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer
    - Justices who dissented: William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas
    - Chief Justice at the time: William Rehnquist

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    Christopher Simmons was sentenced to death at age 17 after a murder conviction. The Court overturned Stanford v. Kentucky, which held that executing a minor was not unconstitutional. The Court, under Chief Justice William Rehnquist who dissented, held that times had changed and executing a minor was now “cruel and unusual punishment.”

    How this affects you: Roper v. Simmons was important to show that there was a difference between a juvenile committing a crime versus an adult committing a crime, and that should be reflected in their punishment. Juveniles are not developed to the degree that adults are, which is why there are separate juvenile facilities and criminal records for minors who are not tried as adults.

  • District of Columbia v. Heller

    1. - Topic of case: what constitutes a violation of the Second Amendment

    - Case decided on: June 26, 2008
    - Vote tally: 5–4 decision
    - Justices who concurred: John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito
    - Justices who dissented: John P. Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer
    - Chief Justice at the time: John Roberts

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    Washington D.C. Police officer Heller could carry a handgun while on duty, but D.C. law banned registration of handguns for personal use. Heller sued the District of Columbia.

    The Court held that requiring handguns to be non-functional in the home—and banning their registration—violated the Second Amendment and didn’t allow people to protect themselves at home. The case established precedent used in McDonald v. Chicago, which determined that Chicago's handgun ban violated an individual's right to keep and bear arms for self-defense.

    How this affects you: This case has been widely criticized by modern proponents of gun laws, especially in an era when gun violence and mass shootings have become more common. While this case did not completely eliminate all regulations on guns, it has often been used as an example and a precedent for why a citizen’s Second Amendment right to bear arms should not be limited.

  • Citizens United v. FEC

    - Topic of case: political campaign donations as a form of free speech
    - Case decided on: Jan. 21, 2010
    - Vote tally: 5–4 decision for Citizens United
    - Justices who concurred: John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito
    - Justices who dissented: John P. Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor
    - Chief Justice at the time: John Roberts

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    Citizens United, a conservative non-partisan organization, sought an injunction against the Federal Election Committee to prevent the application of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act to its film about Hillary Clinton. Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court overturned Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and portions of McConnell v. FEC, holding that political speech (and funding) cannot be limited, even if it's from a corporation.

    How this affects you: 10 years after the Citizens United decision was passed, it remains controversial. The case effectively allowed corporations and wealthy individuals to put large amounts of money into politics through the use of Super PACs and dark money, therefore having more power to influence a political campaign or candidate in return.

  • National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius

    - Topic of case: constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
    - Case decided on: June 28, 2012
    - Vote tally: Multiple decisions
    - Justices who concurred: John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan
    - Chief Justice at the time: John Roberts

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, in 2010. Part of the ACA included an “individual mandate.” The administration amended the tax code to require people to purchase minimum health care coverage or pay a penalty. The ACA also required states to accept an expansion of Medicaid in order to receive federal funds for the program and added an employer mandate to obtain health coverage for employees.

    The Court, under Chief Justice John Roberts, upheld the individual mandate, reasoning that the individual mandate was a reasonable tax. The Court also held that the Medicaid expansion was a valid exercise of Congress' spending power.

    How this affects you: The decision was important to keep the Affordable Care Act going, which still provided insurance to millions of Americans. It also allowed the government to effectively penalize Americans who did not have health insurance by framing it as a tax, although this was harmful to many middle-class Americans that struggled to pay the penalty each month.

  • Obergefell v. Hodges

    - Topic of case: same-sex marriage
    - Case decided on: June 26, 2015
    - Vote tally: 5–4 decision for Obergefell
    - Justices who concurred: Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan
    - Justices who dissented: John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito
    - Chief Justice at the time: John Roberts

    - Majority and dissenting opinions

    Same-sex couples in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee challenged their state’s laws against same-sex marriages. The Court held that laws banning or not recognizing legal same-sex marriage violate the Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause extends the fundamental right to marry to all couples.

    Chief Justice John 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 on what they viewed as a state matter.

    How this affects you: This case was groundbreaking for LGBTQ+ rights, as the decision made laws banning or limiting same-sex marriage in some states unconstitutional. While critics of the case did not like the Court impeding on states’ rights, it was still a major decision that officially recognized and normalized homosexuality after decades of not doing so.

     

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