Selected Supreme Court Cases

Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803). This case involved the nomination of justices of the peace in Washington, DC, by President John Adams at the end of his term. Despite the Senate confirming the nominations, some of the commissions were not delivered before Adams left office. The new president, Thomas Jefferson, decided not to deliver the commissions. William Marbury, one of the offended justices, sued, saying that the Judiciary Act of 1789 empowered the court to force Secretary of State James Madison to deliver the commissions. In the unanimous decision in Marbury v. Madison, the court declared that while Marbury’s rights were violated when Madison refused to deliver the commission, the court did not have the power to force the secretary to do so despite what the Judiciary Act says. In declaring that the law conflicted with the U.S. Constitution, the case established the principle of judicial review wherein the Supreme Court has the power to declare laws passed by Congress and signed by the president to be unconstitutional.

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1856). This case concerned the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise, which declared that certain states would be entirely free of slavery. Dred Scott, a slave, was brought by his owner into free territories. When the owner brought him back to Missouri, a slave state, Dred Scott sued claiming that his time living in free territory made him free. After failing in his attempts in Missouri, Scott appealed to the Supreme Court. In a 7–2 decision, the court declared that the relevant parts of the Missouri Compromise were unconstitutional, and that Scott remained a slave as a result.

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). When Homer Plessy, a man of mixed racial heritage, sat in a Whites-only railroad car in an attempt to challenge a Louisiana law that required railroad cars be segregated, he was arrested and convicted. Appealing his conviction to the Supreme Court, he argued that the segregation law was a violation of the principle of equal protection under the law in the Fourteenth Amendment. In a 7–1 decision, the court disagreed, indicating that the law was not a violation of the equal protection principle because the different train cars were separate but equal. Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” remained a guiding principle of segregation until Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

A. L. A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, 295 U.S. 495 (1935). This case represented a challenge to the constitutionality of a law called the National Industrial Recovery Act. This law was a major part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to rebuild the nation’s economy during the Great Depression. Major industries in the United States, however, objected to the way the law empowered the president to regulate aspects of American industry, such as labor conditions and even pay. In the unanimous decision, the court determined that the act was unconstitutional because it shifted the power to regulate commerce from the legislative branch to the executive branch.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). This case represented a challenge to the principle of “separate but equal” established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. The case was brought by students who were denied admittance to certain public schools based exclusively on race. The unanimous decision in Brown v. Board determined that the existence of racially segregated public schools violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court decided that schools segregated by race perpetrated harm by giving legal sanction to the idea that African Americans were inherently inferior. The ruling effectively overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and removed the legal supports for segregated schools nationwide.

Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). In 1961, Clarence E. Gideon was arrested and accused of breaking into a poolroom and stealing money from a cigarette machine. Not being able to afford a lawyer, and being denied a public defender by the judge, Gideon defended himself and was subsequently found guilty. Gideon appealed to the Supreme Court declaring that the denial by the trial judge constituted a violation of his constitutional right to representation. The unanimous decision by the court in Gideon v. Wainwright agreed that the Sixth Amendment required that those facing felony criminal charges be supplied with legal representation.

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). This case began when the New York Times published a full-page advertisement claiming that the arrest of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Alabama was part of a concerted effort to ruin him. Insulted, an Alabama official filed a libel suit against the newspaper. Under Alabama law, which did not require that persons claiming libel have to show harm, the official won a judgment. The New York Times appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the ruling violated its First Amendment right to free speech. In a unanimous decision, the court declared that the First Amendment protects even false statements by the press, as long as those statements are not made with actual malice.

Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). When Ernesto Miranda was arrested, interrogated, and confessed to kidnapping in 1963, the arresting officers neglected to inform him of his Fifth Amendment right not to self-incriminate. After being found guilty at trial, Miranda appealed to the Supreme Court, insisting that the officers violated his Fifth Amendment rights. The 5–4 decision in Miranda v. Arizona found that the right to not incriminate oneself relies heavily on the suspect’s right to be informed of these rights at the time of arrest. The opinion indicated that suspects must be told that they have the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent in order to ensure that any statements they provide are issued voluntarily.

Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973). This case involved a pregnant woman from Texas who desired to terminate her pregnancy. At the time, Texas only allowed abortions in cases where the woman’s life was in danger. Using the pseudonym “Jane Roe,” the woman appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Constitution provides women the right to terminate an abortion. The 7–2 decision in Roe v. Wade sided with the plaintiff and declared that the right to privacy upheld in the decision in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) included a woman’s right to an abortion. In balancing the rights of the woman with the interests of the states to protect human life, the court created a trimester framework. In the first trimester, a pregnant woman could seek an abortion without restriction. In the second and third trimesters, however, the court asserted that states had an interest in regulating abortions, provided that those regulations were based on health needs.

Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976). This case concerned the power of the then recently created Federal Election Commission to regulate the financing of political campaigns. These restrictions limited the amount of contributions that could be made to candidates and required political contributions to be disclosed, among other things. In 1975, Senator James Buckley filed suit, arguing that these limits amounted to a violation of First Amendment protections on free speech and free association. In a series of decisions in this complex case, the court determined that these restrictions did not violate the First Amendment.

Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000). Following voting in the November 2000 presidential election, observers recognized that the outcome of the very close national election hinged on the outcome of the election in Florida. Because the Florida election was so close, manual recounts were called for by the state’s supreme court. Then-governor George W. Bush, who was ahead in the initial count, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the manual recount and to declare that the method of manual recount being used violated his rights to equal protection and due process. The court issued a two-part per curiam opinion on the case. (In a per curiam opinion, the court makes it clear that the decision in the case is not intended to set a legal precedent.) In the first part, the court ruled in a 7–2 decision that the manual recount did violate the plaintiff’s right to equal protection. In the second part, decided by a smaller 5–4 margin, the court ruled that there was not sufficient time to adjust the recount procedure and conduct a full recount. The effect of this ruling gave the Florida electoral votes, and thus the presidency, to George W. Bush.

District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), was a landmark decision of the US Supreme Court ruling that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms, unconnected with service in a militia, for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home, and that the District of Columbia’s handgun ban and requirement that lawfully owned rifles and shotguns be kept “unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock” violated this guarantee. It also stated that the right to bear arms is not unlimited and that guns and gun ownership would continue to be regulated. It was the first Supreme Court case to decide whether the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense or if the right was intended for state militias.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010). In 2007, the nonprofit corporation Citizens United was prevented by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) from showing a movie about then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The FEC noted that showing the movie violated the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). BCRA prohibited campaign communications one month before a primary election and two months before a general election, required donors to be disclosed, and prohibited corporations from using their general funds for campaign communications. The plaintiffs argued that these restrictions constituted a violation of the First Amendment. The 5–4 decision in Citizens United v. FEC agreed with the plaintiffs and concluded that the restrictions imposed by BCRA and enforced by the FEC violated the corporation’s First Amendment right to free expression.

McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010). This case developed as a consequence of the decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), which dismissed a Washington, DC, handgun ban as a violation of the Second Amendment. In McDonald v. Chicago, the plaintiffs argued that the Fourteenth Amendment had the effect of applying the Second Amendment to the states, not just to the federal government. In a 5–4 decision, the court agreed with the plaintiffs and concluded that rights like the right to keep and bear arms are important enough for maintaining liberty that the Fourteenth Amendment rightly applies them to the states. The decision cleared up the uncertainty left in the wake of District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) as to the scope of gun rights in regard to the states.

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. ___ (2014). This case involved a challenge to the mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that required that all employment-based group health care plans provide coverage for certain types of contraceptives. The law, however, allowed exemptions for religious employers such as churches that held a religious-based opposition to contraception. The plaintiffs in the case argued that Hobby Lobby, a large family-owned chain of arts and crafts stores, was run based on Christian principles and therefore should be exempt as well because of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). The 5–4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby agreed with the plaintiffs and declared that RFRA permits for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby to deny coverage for contraception in their health plans when that coverage violates a religious belief.

Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___ (2015). This case concerned groups of same-sex couples who brought suits against a number of states and relevant agencies that refused to recognize same-sex marriages created in states where such marriages were legal. In the 5–4 decision, the court found that not only did the Fourteenth Amendment provision for equal protection under the law require that states recognize same-sex marriages formed in other states, but that no state could deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples if they also issued them to other types of couples.

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