American Law

Updated July 22, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The U.S. Constitution is formally ratified.


The Bill of Rights is ratified.


Marbury v. Madison is the first instance in which a law passed by Congress is declared unconstitutional. The decision greatly expands the power of the Supreme Court by establishing its right to overturn acts of Congress, a power not explicitly granted by the Constitution.


In McCulloch v. Maryland, the United States Supreme Court makes a landmark ruling, deciding that Congress has not only the powers granted by the Constitution, but also those powers necessary or helpful in carrying out its authority.


Dred Scott v. Sandford is a highly controversial case that intensifies the national debate over slavery. The case involves Dred Scott, a slave, who was taken from a slave state to a free territory. Scott files a lawsuit claiming that because he had lived on free soil he was entitled to his freedom. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney disagrees, ruling that African Americans are not citizens and therefore cannot sue in federal court.


The Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery throughout the United States.


In the Kalamazoo case, the Michigan Supreme Court decides that state tax money can be used to support public schools.


Plessy v. Ferguson is the infamous case that asserts that “equal but separate accommodations” for African Americans on railroad cars do not violate the “equal protection under the law” clause of the 14th Amendment.


Congress passes the Keating-Owen Child Act, which prohibits interstate shipment of goods made by children.


Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka invalidates racial segregation in schools and leads to the unraveling of de jure segregation in all areas of public life. The Supreme Court invalidates the 1896 Plessy ruling, declaring “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” and contends that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”


The Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright guarantees a defendant's right to legal counsel.


Congress passes the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in voting, education, employment, and access to public facilities.


Miranda v. Arizona helps define the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. At the center of the case is Ernesto Miranda, who confessed to a crime during police questioning without knowing he had a right to have an attorney present. Based on his confession, Miranda is convicted. The Supreme Court overturns the conviction, ruling that criminal suspects must be warned of their rights before they are questioned by police.


Regents of the University of California v. Bakke imposes limitations on affirmative action to ensure that providing greater opportunities for minorities would not come at the expense of the rights of the majority.


Congress passes the USA Patriot Act, designed to increase the powers of law enforcement in the war on terrorism.


In Grutter v. Bollinger, which addresses the University of Michigan Law School's admissions program, the Supreme Court upholds affirmative action in higher education. Race can be one of many factors considered by colleges when selecting their students. At the same time, however, the Supreme Court rules in Gratz v. Bollinger that the more formulaic approach of the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions program, which uses a point system that rates students and awards additional points to minorities, has to be modified.

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