Major Supreme Court Cases in United States History


Since the acceptance that Judicial Review was in fact one of the powers granted to the Supreme Court by the constitution, the judicial branch of the United States Federal Government has been essentially the place where laws are decided. While the judicial branch of government is balanced by congress’ ability to modify the constitution to accommodate laws desired by their constituents, it is a lengthy and difficult process and typically what the Supreme Court decides becomes the law of the land. 

The Supreme Court itself in part decided upon the role of the Supreme Court in the balance of powers that make up the United States Federal Government in the case of Marbury vs. Madison. While the constitution implicitly suggested the power of judicial review it was not used in practice before this case. That said, many times in English Common law, which influenced greatly the laws of the United States, the power of the courts had been used to overturn decisions made by the legislative branches of government that directly violated the constitution. With the conclusion of this case the judicial branch of the federal government of the United States for the first time in practice acted to balance the other two branches of government, the executive and legislative branches.

  • Judicial Review – Questions & Answers from the SBA
  • The Separation of Powers – Lessons regarding the United States Federal Government, and the laws that balance the power of each branch.
  • Appellate courts – An Overview from the New York State Unified Court System.
  • The Supreme Court – Official web site of the United States Supreme Court.
  • Circuit Courts – Information about and locations of United States Circuit Courts.

Marbury vs. Madison

The case of Marbury vs. Madison established precedent for the United States Supreme Court to examine whether laws were constitutional or not. Prior to this case many were skeptical about exactly what the role of the judicial branch should be in the United States Federal Government. It is important to note that the Supreme Court is an appellate court; it only hears cases when the decision of a lower court is being disputed. 

Marbury vs. Madison established that in addition to being able to rule whether a decision made by a lower court was correct, that the Supreme Court could rule whether a law was constitutional or not. On several occasions this power has also been used to overturn previous decisions made by the Supreme Court itself. In essence this case determined the main power the Supreme Court possesses: Judicial Review.

Brown vs. The Board of Education 

Marbury vs. Madison established the right of judicial review, but several cases have resulted in decisions based on this right. One landmark case was Brown vs. The Board of Education. Previously the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson had ruled that separate facilities for different races, African Americans specifically, were legal so long as these facilities were of the same quality. 

Another issue involved was the fact that in many cases African Americans were being forced to travel long distances to school when adequate, or better, facilities were nearby. This combined with the social effects of not being able to attend class alongside one’s peers from outside school was very difficult for segregated students. In essence the outcome of the case decided that access to interaction with students of another race, and shared facilities was itself a right, and that students should have equal access to a multi-racial classroom.

Miranda vs. Arizona

The case of Miranda vs. Arizona establishes two important aspects of the rights of persons being arrested, or interrogated. Firstly, this case established that suspects need to be specifically informed of their rights to an attorney, and to refuse to answer any questions. It also established that once detained individuals had agreed to give testimony, and statements they made could then be used in court. Both of these rights are implicitly defined in the constitution, but the decision had sweeping effects on the collection of evidence in practice.

The basic concept of Miranda rights has existed for some time. Constitutionally, an individual cannot be forced to testify against themselves, but the Miranda vs. Arizona decision determined that if an individual offers testimony which incriminates them, this testimony is able to be used when prosecuting that individual in court. An interesting effect of this case was that evidence could be rejected because it violated the principle of this right.

Tinker vs. Des Moines

Tinker vs. Des Moines was a case involving students who were wearing armbands to express disapproval of the Vietnam War. The decision resulted in school officials having to provide reason for any situation where a right to freedom of expression was breached or banned. The court determined that this was a violation of student’s freedom of expression.

Dress codes in school do not necessarily abridge the right of freedom of expression. In this case however there was not any clear reason why armbands differed from other forms of attire that expressed political sentiment. The decision is still a complicated one because students often opt to make controversial statements through their choice of dress, and school officials often find such messages offensive, or potentially provoking conflicts between students that could be a detriment to the entire student population

Dred Scott vs. Sanford

The 'Dred Scott decision held that African Americans who had been imported as slaves were not valid United States Citizens, and thus were not protected by the constitutional rights afforded to other citizens. For many years this law was used as a means to deprive African Americans and their descendants of the rights afforded American citizens. Eventually the Supreme Court overturned this decision.

At the time the United States remained deeply divided on the issue of slavery, and the Supreme Court Justices were loath to become involved. Northern Industry relied more on mechanized industry, but the south largely relied on human labor. In large part the position of the court was decided because the court hoped to keep the Federal Government out of the issue of slavery, but it resulted in the opposite; because of this decision many states used the result of this case to defend practices that oppressed African Americans.

Plessy vs. Ferguson

Plessy vs. Ferguson, as aforementioned, was the case that originally established the basis for 'separate but equal' facilities for minorities. The case was eventually overturned in Marbury vs. Madison. For a very long time the case was used to deny African Americans access to the same facilities used by whites.

This case originally involved only railroad facilities. The case took place in New Orleans, but the effects on the country as a whole were very significant. An important aspect of the case was that the Supreme Court addressed the issue of social equality, but decided that the Constitution itself was indifferent to social equality and powerless to change it. Also because the case involved only railroad transportation in Louisiana, the court more or less indicated that it was a state issue. In spite of it being a state issue the case was used subsequently as a precedent for 'separate but equal' until Brown vs. Board of education overturned this verdict.

Gideon vs. Wainright

In the case of Gideon vs. Wainright, a defendant was forced to act as his own legal counsel as he was unable to procure funds for an attorney, and he was not accursed of a capital offense. The Supreme Court reversed the decision on the basis that he was denied an essential right, necessary to a fair trial. Of interest is the fact that the defendant was clearly guilty and was eventually convicted.

It remains true that for minor crimes one does not inherently have a right to free legal counsel. In cases like these one still can consult organizations such as ‘Legal Aid’, and many attorneys do offer free consultations that provide an overview for defendants. In most situations where an individual is facing incarceration they do have a right to free legal defense, as a result of this case.

Roe vs. Wade 

Roe vs. Wade established a legal basis for a woman's right to have an abortion performed. Strictly speaking the court ruled that an abortion could be performed up until the point where a fetus can live outside the mother's womb, even if doing so would require artificial life support means. This case remains extremely controversial.

While it is often suggested the Supreme Court recognized the right to a woman over her own body, this was not really the decision the court arrived at. Much of the basis for the decision was that an individual is assumed to be able to communicate privately with their physician. In many ways this case stated that it was not so much whether an abortion took place, as it was that the state had no right to look into the medical history of an individual without their permission, when clearly such medical treatment did not present a risk for third parties.

  • Roe vs. Wade – An analysis from the University of Cornell
  • Abortion Law – Information from the National Abortion Federation

Schnek vs. United States 

This case involved espionage, and the right to free speech. Specifically it dealt with whether one could object to the United States participation in World War I. It established the rule of 'clear and present danger,' which held that Free Speech was a right only when it did not present a clear and present danger to those near an individual. Prohibited speech was likened to yelling 'Fire' in a crowded theater where a fire was not present, as doing so likely would result in injury to those present.

The right to speak in opposition to war continued to be debated long after the results of this case. Tinker vs. Des Moines at least established that a citizen has a right to object to actions of war initiated by the United States, but the principle, established by that verdict, remains that they may do so only if it does not put other Americans in harms way. A chief difference between the two cases was that espionage aids enemies in times of war. Many issues regarding objecting to military actions of the country remain ambiguous however, and the situation with detainees in Guantanamo has raised many more questions.

  • Free Speech – The Development of the Clear and Present Danger Test
  • Clear & Present Danger – An analysis of how Freedom of Expression impacts Guantanamo detainees.

Texas vs. Johnson

This case, which is still frequently debated and controversial, dealt with desecrating the American flag. A member of the communist party, Johnson, had been convicted under state laws of desecrating a United States flag. The court held that burning a flag was protected speech. Many individuals, especially those who had served in the military found the decision offensive.

Ironically burning flags has historically been one means of properly destroying dilapidated flags, or ones that had become unintentionally damaged. What became an issue, especially given the US was at War, was that this was often seen not simply as a political statement but also something that insulted soldiers. Unlike other cases mentioned herein however this did not pose a risk of harm to soldiers, and the court ruled simply that it was a form of protected speech.

United States vs Nixon 

During this case, then President Richard Nixon refused to give evidence in a trial with regard to the theft of tapes at the Watergate Hotel. The court ruled that the executive powers of the president could not be used as an excuse to withhold pertinent evidence in a trial. Ultimately Nixon was not prosecuted, but was impeached.

The executive powers are protected under the law so that other branches of government have to go through proper channels when attempting to balance the power of the president. Even early in constitutional history there was a concern that the president, much as monarchies had historically, could use his or her power to circumvent the other branches of government. This case made plain the president’s powers are protected but the president is not above the law.

Weeks vs. United States

In this case the appeal was with regard to seizure without warrant, of documents from a person's home. Ultimately the case held that the Fourth Amendment requires that a warrant be procured before searching any of an individual’s property. Furthermore it established that any evidence taken without such a warrant could not be used in a trial. 

In many instances police were able to abuse their power by collecting evidence through pretty much any means necessary. That said, doing so in essence breaches an individual’s right to not provide evidence against themselves. Additionally, as much had been done in the legal systems the founders sought to replace, police were able to routinely visit an individual several times in hopes that eventually they would in some way violate the law. This decision made it clear that the authorities may only try to collect evidence from an individual or their residence when they have requested permission to do so, and have a valid and specific reason for collecting evidence.

  • The Exclusionary Rule – Supreme Court Cases that affect how evidence is collected and tried.
  • Weeks vs. US – What happens when evidence is unlawfully collected?

Korematsu vs. United States

Originally this case was decided in favor of the government of the United States, that internment of Japanese Americans was required during the Second World War, and that the risk of non-internment trumped individual rights. This case has never been reversed, however the Japanese American, Korematsu, who was the subject of the case, did eventually have his conviction overturned for other reasons, related to how the evidence was submitted during the original trial.

Even today the general concept of detaining Japanese Americans is controversial. Because the case was never actually reversed it is assumed that in other conflicts individuals might be detained simply based on their ethnicity. Given the conflicts in the Middle East many have suggested that it is possible the United States might go so far as to detain individuals based on their religious beliefs, which would violate the core principles of the United States Constitution.

Each of these cases has resulted in sweeping effects with regard to the application of constitutional principles under the law. It is through landmark decisions like these that the Supreme Court helps protect individuals from abuse under the powers of the other branches of government. Because of decisions like these, the principle of divided powers is upheld, and the American Constitution is preserved.