Since the establishment of the United States Supreme Court on March 4, 1789, as the highest court in the federal judiciary of the fledgling nation, the institution has periodically served as the focal point in many of the most important moments of American history. Whether for better or for worse, the power wielded by the Justices of the Supreme Court is matched by only a handful of individuals across the branches of American government. Offering the final interpretation of the Constitution, as well as presiding as the last court of appeal, the members of the Supreme Court have literally, and at times controversially, changed the very face of the nation they are charged with overseeing.
Here are 20 of the most impactful historic judgments made by the United States Supreme Court that you should know about:
20. Chisholm v. Georgia resulted in the Eleventh Amendment being hastily passed to supersede the court’s legal opinion
In 1792, the estate of Robert Farquhar attempted, in South Carolina, to sue the State of Georgia. Farquhar, a trader, had supplied Georgia during the Revolutionary War but had never received payment for his goods and services. Reaching the Supreme Court, the United States Attorney General, Edmund Randolph, represented the Farquhar estate, whilst the State of Georgia, claiming it was a sovereign entity, refused to appear as it asserted that it enjoyed immunity and could not be sued without first granting permission. Ruling 4-1 in favor of Farquhar, the Supreme Court determined states did not possess sovereign immunity under the Constitution and provided federal courts the power to hear said disputes.
Provoking outcry within the United States, Justice Iredell issued a dissenting opinion strongly opposing his colleagues’ judgments. Surprised, and indeed frightened, by their sudden change in presumed legal status, several states began seeking a means of redress to protect themselves from lawsuits. Proposing a constitutional amendment in March 1794, in less than twelve months the Eleventh Amendment had been ratified by twelve states to become part of the United States Constitution, stipulating that a state can only be sued with their own consent or if, following passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, Congress employs its remedial powers.
19. Marbury v. Madison determined the legal body possessed the power of judicial review and could invalidate laws
Following the defeat of the Federalists in the presidential election of 1800, the outgoing and ungracious John Adams and his supporters sought to stack federal offices with “anti-Jeffersonians”. Nominating nearly sixty individuals to circuit judge positions on March 2, 1801 – two days before the end of his term – these so-called “Midnight Judges” were confirmed en masse by the Senate and writs were sent out confirming their appointments. However, with Jefferson taking office on March 4, not all of these notices reached their recipients in time and Jefferson promptly canceled all those outstanding claiming the offers had become consequently void.
William Marbury, a passionate supporter of Adams denied his seat by the new Secretary of State James Madison, filed suit against Madison in December 1801 for his refusal to deliver his commission. Although siding with Marbury, noting Madison’s refusal to deliver the commission was illegal, the Supreme Court did not order his compliance. Instead, Chief Justice John Marshall announced the law which gave the court the authority to examine the situation – the Judiciary Act of 1789 – had expanded the court’s jurisdiction beyond constitutional limits. Striking down the foundational law, the Supreme Court asserted the now-famous power of judicial review to invalidate laws found to violate the United States Constitution.
18. McCulloch v. Maryland ultimately determined the supremacy of the federal government over individual states
An issue of great controversy during the presidency of George Washington, in 1791 Congress created, at the request of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, the First Bank of the United States. Designed to regulate the American currency and address national economic problems, the bank was strongly opposed by advocates of states’ rights, fearing it would usurp the power of the states and concentrate it within the federal government. Expiring in 1811, the Second Bank was created in 1816 in an attempt to remedy the economic turmoil following the War of 1812. Seeking to inhibit the bank’s operations, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law levying a $15,000 tax on any bank operating within the state not chartered by itself.
With only the Second Bank of the United States fitting the narrow description, the legislation was a clear attack on the institution’s existence. Refusing to pay, the Maryland Court of Appeals argued “the Constitution is silent on the subject of banks” and thus ruled the Second Bank to be unconstitutional. However, upon arrival in the Supreme Court as McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819, a different interpretation was imposed. Ruling the “Necessary and Proper” Clause of the Constitution granted the federal government implied powers not expressly stated, the court equally ruled the federal government was superior to the states and thus could not be impeded in a valid exercise of power.
17. Gibbons v. Ogden originated as an effort to break a harsh monopoly in the Orleans Territory
In 1808, the Legislature of the State of New York granted Robert Livingston and Robert Fulton exclusive navigation privileges over all waters within the jurisdiction of the state for a period of thirty years. Petitioning other states and territories for similar monopolies, only the Orleans Territory was as generous. Unsuccessfully challenged by competitors, who had to pay a franchise fee to Livingston and Fulton to operate boats, in 1818 Thomas Gibbons began operating his own steamboat on Aaron Ogden’s licensed waters. Infuriating the fee-paying Ogden, Gibbons claimed authority from Congress under a 1793 law regulating coasting trade.
Seeking an injunction against Gibbons in the Court of Errors in New York, the court found in favor of Ogden, arguing states often legislated on issues of interstate trade and their powers were concurrent with those of Congress. Appealing to the Supreme Court, Gibbons sought to destroy the monopoly crushing his business. Victorious, the court ruled that not only did any license issued by federal law take precedence over one issued by a state due to the Supremacy Clause, but Congress’ power to “regulate commerce” concerned more than just the commodities themselves, including also navigation and the internal workings of said trade.
16. Dred Scott v. Sandford remains an indelible stain on the American nation
An enslaved African American, Dred Scott sought to sue for the freedom of himself, his wife, and their two daughters, arguing that because they had lived in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory for four years – where slavery was illegal – they should be emancipated. Ruling 7-2, the Supreme Court not only resolved that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, for it would “improperly deprive Scott’s owner of his legal property”, but also held any person of African ancestry to be ineligible to claim citizenship in the United States and that without citizenship Scott had no standing to even sue in a federal court.
Hoped by Chief Justice Roger Taney to settle the ongoing slavery question, his decision would trigger an earthquake in American politics. Prompting outrage across the United States, except among slaveholding states, the Supreme Court was vilified as never before. Serving as an indirect catalyst for the American Civil War, spurring abolitionists in the North to become noticeably more radical in their opposition to the institution of slavery whilst the South decried attacks on slavery as unlawful assaults on the stated law of the land, the ruling also aided in the Panic of 1857 as financial markets erupted into chaos. Today, the ruling is widely held as among the worst ever made by the Supreme Court.
15. Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the legality of racial segregation under the justification of “separate but equal”
Following passage of the Separate Car Act in 1890 in Louisiana, which required separate accommodations for blacks and whites on all railroads including the use of different railway cars, Homer Plessy – an individual who was seven-eighths of European descent and just one-eighth African, consequently being designated as “colored” – served as the plaintiff as part of an organized bid to overturn the discriminatory legislation. Arrested upon taking his seat in a first-class whites-only railway car, Plessy sought legal redress under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, stipulating equal treatment under the law.
However, failing to find a receptive response at the state level, Plessy appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1896. Represented by white supremacist Milton Joseph Cunningham, Louisiana defended itself vigorously against Plessy’s claims. Ruling 7-1 in Louisiana’s favor, the court dismissed any applicability of the Thirteenth Amendment, determining it merely provided the most basic provisions of legal equality to ensure freedom from slavery. Furthermore, the Supreme Court resolved that laws demanding racial separation did not inherently imply any racial inferiority but were instead provisions of necessary policing powers required by a state to function. Provided services treated customers as “separate but equal”, the court reasoned no crime was being committed by a state in segregating individuals by race.
14. Schenck v. United States provided the earliest determinations on limitations of free speech for wider public good
Following the United States’ entry into World War One, American society was deeply divided concerning the nation’s role in the overseas conflict. Opposed by those belonging to the radical left, particularly persons of Irish and German heritage, the Wilson Administration enacted a broad campaign of criminal enforcement against dissenters. As General Secretary of the Socialist Party, Charles Schenck oversaw the printing and mailing of more than 15,000 fliers to individuals selected for conscription, encouraging them to refuse military service. Convicted under Section Three of the Espionage Act of 1917, Schenck appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing such a punitive measure was contrary to his rights under the First Amendment.
However, issuing a unanimous opinion written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the court reasoned Schenck’s criminal conviction was constitutionally sound. Arguing the First Amendment is not absolute in the provisions it offers, Holmes asserted “when a nation is at war, many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight”, contending Schenck’s actions posed a “clear and present danger” to the war effort. Most famously, his opinion offered the example of “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic”, an oft-used example ever since to explain the limitations of free speech in a civil society.
13. Upholding the free press in the face of restraints, the anti-Semitic and libelous Saturday Press was granted permission to continue operation under Near v. Minnesota
In 1927, J.M. Near – an anti-Semitic writer – along with Howard A. Guilford – previously convicted for criminal libel – began publishing The Saturday Press in Minneapolis. Claiming Jewish gangs were “ruling” the city as part of a conspiracy involving the police chief, the paper also targeted the city’s mayor as well as members of a grand jury. Filing a complaint under the Public Nuisance Law of 1925, known colloquially as the “Minnesota Gag Law”, an injunction was sought against the incendiary publication. Upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court, it was reasoned the scandalous and unfounded allegations “injures and endangers”.
Financed by the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Near took his case to the United States Supreme Court who ruled 5-4 in his favor. Holding that, except in rare cases, censorship of any kind to be unconstitutional, the majority opinion asserted the Public Nuisance Act to be unlawful regardless of whether or not Near’s charges against government officials were true. In his opinion, Justice Hughes contended “the fact that liberty of press may be abused does not make any less necessary the immunity of the press from prior restraint … a more serious evil would result if officials could determine which stories can be published”.
12. Korematsu v. United States ruled internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War was constitutional
Born in Oakland, California, in 1919, Fred Korematsu was the third son of Japanese parents who had emigrated to the United States in 1905. Rejected by the U.S. Navy when called for military duty under the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, Korematsu instead trained as a welder to contribute to the war effort. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Korematsu was fired from his place of employment for his racial heritage. Undergoing plastic surgery on his eyelids in an attempt to pass as a Caucasian, Korematsu unsuccessfully sought to evade capture and was forcibly interned by American authorities for the remaining duration of World War Two under Executive Order 9066.
Appealing his imprisonment, Korematsu was denied at every stage, with his case eventually reaching the United States Supreme Court in 1944. Ruling 6-3 against Korematsu, the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, written by Justice Hugo Black, asserted the need to protect the country against the possibility of espionage outweighed the rights of American citizens of Japanese descent and upheld Roosevelt’s executive order. Described as an “odious and discredited artifact of popular bigotry”, Korematsu’s conviction for failing to adhere to the exclusion order was ultimately voided by a Californian court in 1983 and the case was explicitly rejected by the Supreme Court in 2018 in Trump v. Hawaii.
11. OliverBrown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al. – commonly simplified as Brown v. Board – overturned racial segregation in 1954
Following legal endorsement by the Supreme Court of racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, racial separation became a systemic aspect of American society. Increasingly tarring the image of the United States abroad, the court’s Justices increasingly vocalized opposition to the institution and invited legal challenges. Culminating in a collective suit led by the NAACP concerning most famously the case of Oliver Brown’s daughter, Linda, who was denied enrollment at a nearby school on grounds of her race, a succession of lesser courts upheld the decision by the Board of Education of Topeka citing Plessy v. Ferguson.
Upon arriving at the United States Supreme Court, however, the Justices issued a rare unanimous verdict proclaiming “separate but equal” to be unconstitutional for educational institutions as they were “inherently unequal”. Finding all such facilities to be in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court issued a subsequent order as part of Brown II for all states to desegregate “with all deliberate speed”. Met with anger and resistance throughout much of the American South, the overturning of Plessy v. Ferguson paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement and racial integration despite the ardent opposition the ruling received.
10. Mapp v. Ohio began the process of solidifying the rights of defendants by dictating illegally obtained evidence should be regarded as inadmissible at trial
Receiving an anonymous tip concerning the operations of an illegal gambling racket, police officers in Cleveland, Ohio, attempted to search the house of Dollree Mapp on May 23, 1957. Refused entry without a warrant, a host of officers returned thirteen hours later and forced entry. Presenting a piece of paper claimed to be a warrant, taken from Mapp’s possession following her arrest and never seen again, the police conducted a search of the property. Charged with various crimes, Mapp was eventually sentenced to one year in prison after refusing to testify against her alleged collaborators.
Appealing to the Supreme Court on the grounds the police had no probable cause to suspect her personal involvement, Mapp’s lawyers approached the case from the perspective of the Fourth Amendment. Contending seized books could not be used as evidence at trial of illegal gambling, for they were obtained without a warrant and thus illegally recovered, the Supreme Court sided with Mapp by 6-3. Overturning her conviction, the court issued a widespread proclamation ruling that articles seized unlawfully by any authorities, state or federal, must be excluded from evidence at trial as opposed to the previous interpretation of only affecting federal legal scenarios.
9. Formulating the judgment of “one person, one vote” in relation to the compositions of legislative districts, the Supreme Court reached perhaps its’ hardest verdict in the institution’s history in Baker v. Carr
Under the Tennessee State Constitution, legislative districts for the state’s General Assembly were required to be redrawn every ten years in line with the federal census to provide for constituencies of approximately equal population akin to federal congressional districts. Failing to redistrict since 1901, Charles Baker, a Republican from Shelby County, sought redress on the grounds the woefully imbalanced populations – with some districts possessing ten times the residents – undermined his “equal protection under the law” as required by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Reaching the Supreme Court in 1962, the state of Tennessee asserted the composition of districts was a political, not judicial question, as had been the view of the court in the opinion of Colegrove v. Green written by Justice Frankfurter in 1946. Becoming one of the most difficult cases in the history of the Supreme Court, the case had to be argued for a second time after the justices failed to reach agreement in conference. Finally splitting 6-2 in favor of Baker, with Frankfurter issuing a stinging dissenting opinion, the court ruled redistricting to be a justiciable question. Formulating the now-famous “one person, one vote” standard for future constituency drawings, the judgment forced numerous states, notably Alabama, to engage in widespread alterations to ensure fairness.
8. Offering a broad interpretation of the Establishment Clause, Engel v. Vitale has remained contentious ever since it was authored in 1962
Following passage in New York of legislation encouraging students to begin the school day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a specific prayer, a group of parents, led by Steven Engel, issued suit against the school board president William Vitale Jr. Arguing the encouraged but not mandatory prayer contradicted their religious beliefs, the families sought to challenge the constitutionality of the composed prayer under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as applied to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment. Upheld by the New York Court of Appeals, with the support of twenty-two state governments alongside that of New York’s, the group turned to the United States Supreme Court for redress.
Issuing a historic opinion in a 6-1 decision, Justice Hugo Black explained in detail the importance of the separation of church and state in the United States. Providing a long and detailed history, starting with the religious intolerance of sixteenth-century England, Black eloquently opined prescribing any religious activity in school for children was in violation of the Constitution. Most significantly, the court rejected the arguments that the traditional heritage of the American nation was religious and the prayer was voluntary as well as non-specific, instead asserting promotion of even the concept of religion is sufficient to meet the standard of a violation.
7. Resulting in the freeing of thousands of inmates across the country, Gideon v. Wainwright resolved a defendant by provided legal counsel by the state if they could not afford it themselves
Arrested following a burglary at the Bay Harbor Pool Room in Panama City, Florida, on June 3, 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with breaking and entering and intent to commit petty larceny. Unable to afford legal counsel, consequently requesting it be provided, upon appearing in court Gideon was informed that under Florida law the state only appoints counsel to represent a person charged with a capital offense. Forced to act as his own counsel, Gideon was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. Appealing to the United States Supreme Court from Florida State Prison, using the penitentiary’s library to inform his writings, Gideon sued the Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections.
Claiming he had been denied counsel in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights, the Supreme Court, in an indication of their mood on the subject, assigned Gideon one of the finest lawyers in the country, Abe Fortas, to represent him. Issuing a unanimous decision in favor of Gideon, the Supreme Court ruled the assistance of counsel, should it be desired by a defendant, was a fundamental legal right and essential for a fair trial. Freeing approximately two thousand individuals in Florida alone, Gideon was subjected to a fresh trial. Represented by a lawyer the second time around, Gideon was acquitted after just an hour of deliberations by the jury.
6. Miranda v. Arizona has become an integral and famous aspect of the American legal system in the decades since
On March 13, 1963, Ernesto Miranda was arrested by the Phoenix Police Department after circumstantial evidence connected him to the kidnapping and rape of an eighteen-year-old woman ten days prior. Following two hours of interrogation, during which time no attorney was present, Miranda signed a confession including a statement that he was fully aware of his rights. However, throughout the process Miranda had never been informed he possessed the right to legal counsel, nor was he advised of the right to remain silent or that his statements during interrogation could be used against him in court.
Convicted and sentenced to twenty to thirty years in prison, Miranda’s trial lawyer, Alvin Moore, appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court on grounds his confession was not voluntary as it was made whilst unaware of his rights and thus should have been inadmissible. Denied, the United States Supreme Court took up the case. Ruling 5-4, the court reasoned that no confession could be admissible under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments unless a suspect had been made fully aware of their rights. Overturning Miranda’s conviction, the court stipulated the now-famous “Miranda rights” that must be read to a suspect and commanded that interrogations must cease upon the request for an attorney.
5. Loving v. Virginia overturned centuries of legislation prohibiting interracial marriage
A common feature of United States history, anti-miscegenation laws were abundant until the mid-twentieth century and, although declining, in 1967 sixteen states still retained legislation prohibiting interracial marriage. Seeking to evade Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, Mildred and Richard Loving crossed into the District of Columbia to be wed in June 1958. Nevertheless, upon being raided by the police the following month, who were hoping to find them engaging in intercourse – an act which would have been illegal under Virginian law also – the pair were arrested under the Virginia Code which outlawed interracial couples from being married out of state and subsequently returning.
Failing to win appeals at the state level, who consistently upheld the anti-miscegenation laws and the pair’s resultant convictions, the couple desperately filed with the United States Supreme Court. Overturning the Lovings’ convictions in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court also overruled the precedent previously set in Pace v. Alabama dating from 1883. Ordering the end of all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States, the court ruled the freedom to marry was a constitutionally protected liberty and any arbitrary deprivation of it violated the Due Process Clause. The historic case was recently cited once more as part of the legalization of gay marriage in 2013 in Obergefell v. Hodges.
4. The disjointed conclusion of Furman v. Georgia resulted in the death penalty becoming inapplicable in the United States for three years
Convicted of murder and sentenced to death following his killing of a resident during an aborted burglary, William Henry Furman appealed the verdict to the United States Supreme Court. Ruling 5-4, with each member of the majority writing their own separate opinions, the Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of ruling the imposition of the death penalty in his case, along with many others, constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Reasoning the uneven use of the death penalty in cases of rape and murder to be unjust and unacceptably variable, the court found an apparent arbitrariness in the application of capital sentences strongly indicating a racial bias against black defendants.
Striking down all death penalty schemes in the United States, the Supreme Court ruled that for these punishments to be reinstated each state had to address the aforementioned arbitrary and discriminatory standards to sufficiently satisfy the requirements of the Eighth Amendment. Converting all pending death sentences to life imprisonment, at the time it was believed to be the end of capital punishment in the United States. Ending the nationwide moratorium on capital punishment three years later, however, after thirty-seven states enacted new legislation, the Supreme Court subsequently ruled in Gregg. v. Georgia the required this standard had been met in the case of Troy Leon Gregg.
3. Arguably the most controversial legal ruling in history, ever since the promulgation of the right to an abortion under Roe v. Wade activists have sought to overturn the decision
Following the failed efforts of twenty-one-year-old Norma McCorvey to obtain an abortion in June 1969, a legal challenge was initiated to contest the stringent anti-abortion laws in her home state of Texas. Successful at both the District and Appellate levels, a Fifth Circuit court unanimously declared the Texan law to be unconstitutional and in violation of the Ninth Amendment. Reaching the United States Supreme Court following a government appeal in 1971, Jay Floyd, the lawyer representing Texas, opened arguments with what has since become known as the “worst joke in legal history”.
Making a horrendously sexist remark about his two female counterparts representing McCorvey, the vicious comment resulted in observers thinking Chief Justice Warren Burger might descend from the bench to strike Floyd. Entering into a prolonged period of deliberation, including a second arguing of the case, the Supreme Court did not issue an opinion until January 1973. Ruling 7-2 in favor of McCorvey, known at the time by the alias Roe, the court declared the right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment afforded women the right to decide whether or not to obtain an abortion in the event of pregnancy prior to the viability of the fetus.
2. A crucial ruling concerning limitations of executive privilege and presidential immunity, Nixon v. United States directly resulted in the sole resignation by an American President
Following the Watergate scandal, the second special prosecutor investigating the saga, Leon Jaworski, subpoenaed President Nixon in pursuit of a selection of tapes and papers concerning meetings between the president and individuals indicted by a grand jury. Submitting edited transcripts of forty-three conversations, Nixon subsequently instructed his attorney, James St. Clair, to kill the subpoena. However, arguing before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, St. Clair’s assertion the president “is as powerful as a monarch…and is not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment” was emphatically rejected.
Ordered to surrender the tapes in full, Nixon appealed to the Supreme Court. Arguing the issue was political and not judicial, Nixon also employed a sweeping claim of executive privilege to assert protections over the tapes. Issuing a unanimous decision less than three weeks after hearing arguments, the Supreme Court found the subpoena was valid and proper due to the “sufficient likelihood” of criminal contents. Most vitally, the court declared that although presidential privilege did exist, Nixon’s claims of an “absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity” was false. Ordering delivery of the tapes to the District Court, Nixon resigned sixteen days later.
1. A landmark decision concerning affirmative action in college admissions, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke laid the foundations for the ongoing political issue
Although the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation in schools in the 1950s, including the ordering of school districts to take reasonable steps to actively integrate students, the issue of voluntary affirmative action – that is to say the positive use of race as part of school admissions in an attempt to make up for past discrimination – remained unclear following the procedural dismissal of DeFunis v. Odegaard in 1974. In 1973, Allan Bakke, a thirty-five-year-old white male, sought admission to thirteen medical schools, facing rejection from all but one despite his outstanding candidature.
Following rejection by the University of California, Davis, Bakke, believing he was being unlawfully discriminated against in favor of minorities, challenged the constitutionality of the school’s affirmative action program. Fracturing the court, the contentious issue was addressed by six separate opinions from the nine justices. Ultimately ruling affirmative action was permissible within limits, with race allowed to serve as one of many factors in college admissions, the court determined explicit racial quotas, such as those used at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine, were unlawful. Davis had previously instituted a quota of sixteen out of one hundred seats for minority students and, following the ruling, the system was removed and Bakke ordered admitted.
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