Milestone Cases in Supreme Court History

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Read about landmark cases that have changed history, from Marbury v. Madison to the challenge to Obamacare.

Marbury v. Madison was the first instance in which a law passed by Congress was declared unconstitutional. The decision greatly expanded the power of the Court by establishing its right to overturn acts of Congress, a power not explicitly granted by the Constitution. Initially the case involved Secretary of State James Madison, who refused to seat four judicial appointees although they had been confirmed by the Senate.
McCulloch v. Maryland upheld the right of Congress to create a Bank of the United States, ruling that it was a power implied but not enumerated by the Constitution. The case is significant because it advanced the doctrine of implied powers, or a loose construction of the Constitution. The Court, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, would sanction laws reflecting “the letter and spirit” of the Constitution.
Gibbons v. Ogden defined broadly Congress's right to regulate commerce. Aaron Ogden had filed suit in New York against Thomas Gibbons for operating a rival steamboat service between New York and New Jersey ports. Ogden had exclusive rights to operate steamboats in New York under a state law, while Gibbons held a federal license. Gibbons lost the case and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the decision. The Court held that the New York law was unconstitutional, since the power to regulate interstate commerce, which extended to the regulation of navigation, belonged exclusively to Congress. In the 20th century, Chief Justice John Marshall's broad definition of commerce was used to uphold civil rights.
Dred Scott v. Sandford was a highly controversial case that intensified the national debate over slavery. The case involved Dred Scott, a slave, who was taken from a slave state to a free territory. Scott filed a lawsuit claiming that because he had lived on free soil he was entitled to his freedom. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney disagreed, ruling that blacks were not citizens and therefore could not sue in federal court. Taney further inflamed antislavery forces by declaring that Congress had no right to ban slavery from U.S. territories.
Plessy v. Ferguson was the infamous case that asserted that “equal but separate accommodations” for blacks on railroad cars did not violate the “equal protection under the laws” clause of the 14th Amendment. By defending the constitutionality of racial segregation, the Court paved the way for the repressive Jim Crow laws of the South. The lone dissenter on the Court, Justice John Marshall Harlan, protested, “The thin disguise of ‘equal’ accommodations…will not mislead anyone.”
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka invalidated racial segregation in schools and led to the unraveling of de jure segregation in all areas of public life. In the unanimous decision spearheaded by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court invalidated the Plessy ruling, declaring “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place” and contending that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall was one of the NAACP lawyers who successfully argued the case.
Gideon v. Wainwright guaranteed a defendant's right to legal counsel. The Supreme Court overturned the Florida felony conviction of Clarence Earl Gideon, who had defended himself after having been denied a request for free counsel. The Court held that the state's failure to provide counsel for a defendant charged with a felony violated the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause. Gideon was given another trial, and with a court-appointed lawyer defending him, he was acquitted.
New York Times v. Sullivan extended the protection offered the press by the First Amendment. L.B. Sullivan, a police commissioner in Montgomery, Ala., had filed a libel suit against the New York Times for publishing inaccurate information about certain actions taken by the Montgomery police department. In overturning a lower court's decision, the Supreme Court held that debate on public issues would be inhibited if public officials could sue for inaccuracies that were made by mistake. The ruling made it more difficult for public officials to bring libel charges against the press, since the official had to prove that a harmful untruth was told maliciously and with reckless disregard for truth.
Griswold v. Connecticut said that Connecticut's ban on the use of contraceptives violated a couple's "right to marital privacy," and that the right to privacy for couples is a fundamental right.
Miranda v. Arizona was another case that helped define the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. At the center of the case was Ernesto Miranda, who had confessed to a crime during police questioning without knowing he had a right to have an attorney present. Based on his confession, Miranda was convicted. The Supreme Court overturned the conviction, ruling that criminal suspects must be warned of their rights before they are questioned by police. These rights are: the right to remain silent, to have an attorney present, and, if the suspect cannot afford an attorney, to have one appointed by the state. The police must also warn suspects that any statements they make can be used against them in court. Miranda was retried without the confession and convicted.
Roe v. Wade legalized abortion and is at the center of the current controversy between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” advocates. The Court ruled that a woman has the right to an abortion without interference from the government in the first trimester of pregnancy, contending that it is part of her “right to privacy.” The Court maintained that right to privacy is not absolute, however, and granted states the right to intervene in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.
Buckley v. Valeo
Sen. James Buckley (R-NY) and others challenged a number of the 1974 amendments to Federal Election Campaign Act, saying the spending and contribution limits on political campaigns violated free speech rights. In a per curiam decision, the Supreme Court upheld the limits on contributions from individuals, disclosure rules, and the public financing of campaigns, saying they maintain the integrity of elections and prevent corruption. However, the Court struck down spending limits imposed on candidates and inviduals or groups. "It is clear that a primary effect of these expenditure limitations is to restrict the quantity of campaign speech by individuals, groups and candidates," the Court said. "So long as persons or groups eschew expenditures that in express terms advocate the election or defeat of a clearly defined candidate, they are free to spend as much as they want to promote the candidate and his views." The ruling opened the floodgates to issue ads that clearly endorse—or attack—a candidate but refrain from using terms such as "vote for," "defeat," or "elect."
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke imposed limitations on affirmative action to ensure that providing greater opportunities for minorities did not come at the expense of the rights of the majority. In other words, affirmative action was unfair if it lead to reverse discrimination. The case involved the University of Calif., Davis, Medical School and Allan Bakke, a white applicant who was rejected twice even though there were minority applicants admitted with significantly lower scores than his. A closely divided Court ruled that while race was a legitimate factor in school admissions, the use of rigid quotas was not permissible.
Bush v. Gore the Court reversed the Florida Supreme Court decision ordering manual recount of presidential election ballots. A majority of justices (7-2) agreed that the recount violated the Constitution's equal protection and due process guarantees, since counting standards varied among counties. The Court remanded the case to the Florida Supreme Court for remedy but, in 5-4 split, maintained that deadline for recount ended at midnight. The decision effectively ended the presidential election, handing a victory to George W. Bush.
Grutter v. Bollinger upheld the University of Michigan Law School's consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions. In her majority opinion, Justice O'Connor said that the law school used a “highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant's file.” Race, she said, was not used in a “mechanical way.” Therefore, the university's program was consistent with the requirement of “individualized consideration” set in 1978's Bakke case. “In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity,” O'Connor said. However, the court ruled that the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions system, which awarded 20 points to black, Hispanic, and American-Indian applicants, was “nonindividualized, mechanical,” and thus unconstitutional.
In Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, a challenge to a New Hampshire law that prohibits doctors from performing an abortion on a minor until 48 hours after a parent has been notified is heard. The Supreme Court rules that the government cannot restrict abortions when one is required during a medical emergency.
In Gonzales v. Carhart, the court no longer requires that the regulation of abortion by government must protect the mother's health.
In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that the government cannot restrict the spending of corporations for political campaigns, maintaining that it's their First Amendment right to support candidates as they choose. This decision upsets two previous precedents on the free-speech rights of corporations. President Obama expressed disapproval of the decision, calling it a "victory" for Wall Street and Big Business.
In National Federation of Independent Business v. Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, one of the most anticipated rulings in recent history, the Supreme Court upheld most of President Barack Obama's healthcare law—the signature legislation of his first term, including the individual mandate, which requires that most Americans buy health insurance or pay a fee. The individual mandate was the centerpiece of the law. The court ruled, 5–4, that the individual mandate is constitutional under Congress's taxing authority. "Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority decision. The Court also upheld the expansion of Medicaid, the government's health insurance program for low-income Americans, but limited the provision, saying states will not necessarily lose their funding if they choose not to expand the program. The ruling was considered a major victory for Obama in an election year.
In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which established a formula for Congress to use when determining if a state or voting jurisdiction requires prior approval before changing its voting laws. Currently under Section 5 of the act nine—mostly Southern—states with a history of discrimination must get clearance from Congress before changing voting rules to make sure racial minorities are not negatively affected. While the 5–4 decision did not invalidate Section 5, it made it toothless. Chief Justice John Roberts said the formula Congress now uses, which was written in 1965, has become outdated. "While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions," he said in the majority opinion. In a strongly worded dissent, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, "Hubris is a fit word for today's demolition of the V.R.A." (Voting Rights Act).
In United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional. In a 5 to 4 vote, the court ruled that DOMA violated the rights of gays and lesbians. The court also ruled that the law interferes with the states' rights to define marriage. It was the first case ever on the issue of gay marriage for the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. voted against striking it down as did Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. However, conservative-leaning Justice Anthony M. Kennedy voted with his liberal colleagues to overturn DOMA.
In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage opponents in California did not have standing to appeal the lower court ruling that overturned the state's ban, known as Proposition 8. The ruling would most likely remove legal battles for same-sex couples wishing to marry in California. However, the ruling did not directly affect other states.
Taking on the complexities of life in a digital age in the case Riley v. California, the Supreme Court decided unanimously that police need a warrant to search a suspect's cellphone in a unanimous decision. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse.“
In King v. Burwell, the Supreme Court upheld a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, allowing subsidies on federal marketplaces in 34 states to continue. The subsidies provide tax breaks to the poor and some middle-class citizens who buy insurance in the exchanges set up by the government. The case centered on an Internal Revenue Service rule that makes some people who buy insurance on federal exchanges eligible for subsidies. The rule says that subsidies are offered in exchanges "established by the State." The group that challenged the IRS rule said the federal subsidies are illegal because they weren't explicitly mentioned in the law. Thirty-four states have not created their own exchanges, forcing residents to enroll through federal exchanges. About seven million people are covered under the federal exchanges. "Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the majority ruling.
The Court rules in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples have the fundamental right to marry and that states cannot say that marriage is reserved for heterosexual couples. "Under the Constitution, same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined Kennedy in the ruling. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr., the court's most conservative members, dissented.

See also Summaries of Selected Supreme Court Cases.

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