Marbury v Madison 1803Judicial ReviewMarbury v. Madison, arguably the most important casein Supreme Court history, was the first U.S. SupremeCourt case to apply the principle of "judicial review" --the power of federal courts to void acts of Congress inconflict with the Constitution. Written in 1803 by ChiefJustice John Marshall, the decision played a key role inmaking the Supreme Court a separate branch ofgovernment on par with Congress and the executive.
McCulloch v Maryland 1819“Elastic Clause”In McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) the Supreme Courtruled that Congress had implied powers under theNecessary and Proper Clause of Article I, Section 8 ofthe Constitution to create the Second Bank of theUnited States and that the state of Maryland lackedthe power to tax the Bank. Arguably Chief Justice JohnMarshalls finest opinion, McCulloch not only gaveCongress broad discretionary power to implement theenumerated powers, but also repudiated, in ringinglanguage, the radical states rights argumentspresented by counsel for Maryland.
Gibbons v Ogden 1824Supremacy of National LawsGibbons v. Ogden (1824) vastly expanded the powersof Congress through a single clause in the Constitution:the Commerce Clause of Article I, Section 8. The Courtruled that under that clause Congress had powers toregulate any aspect of commerce that crossed statelines, including modes of transportation, and that suchregulation preempted conflicting regulation by thestates. Since Gibbons, the Commerce Clause hasprovided the basis for sweeping congressional powerover a multitude of national issues.
Dred Scott v Sanford 1857Slaves are propertyBlacks are not citizensIn Dred Scott v. Sandford (argued 1856 -- decided1857), the Supreme Court ruled that Americans ofAfrican descent, whether free or slave, were notAmerican citizens and could not sue in federal court.The Court also ruled that Congress lacked power toban slavery in the U.S. territories. Finally, the Courtdeclared that the rights of slaveowners wereconstitutionally protected by the Fifth Amendmentbecause slaves were categorized as property.
Plessy v Ferguson 1896Separate but EqualIn Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Courtconsidered the constitutionality of a Louisiana lawpassed in 1890 "providing for separate railway carriagesfor the white and colored races." The law, whichrequired that all passenger railways provide separatecars for blacks and whites, stipulated that the cars beequal in facilities, banned whites from sitting in blackcars and blacks in white cars (with exception to "nursesattending children of the other race"), and penalizedpassengers or railway employees for violating its terms.
Schenck v US 1919Limits Free SpeechIn Schenck v. United States (1919), the Supreme Courtinvented the famous "clear and present danger" test todetermine when a state could constitutionally limit anindividuals free speech rights under the FirstAmendment. In reviewing the conviction of a mancharged with distributing provocative flyers to drafteesof World War I, the Court asserted that, in certaincontexts, words can create a "clear and presentdanger" that Congress may constitutionally prohibit.While the ruling has since been overturned, Schenck isstill significant for creating the context-basedbalancing tests used in reviewing freedom of speechchallenges.
Korematsu v US 1944Limit Civil Liberties During WarEarly in World War II, on February 19, 1942, PresidentFranklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, grantingthe U.S. military the power to ban tens of thousands ofAmerican citizens of Japanese ancestry from areasdeemed critical to domestic security. Promptly exercisingthe power so bestowed, the military then issued an orderbanning "all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien andnon-alien" from a designated coastal area stretching fromWashington State to southern Arizona, and hastily set upinternment camps to hold the Japanese Americans forthe duration of the war. In defiance of the order, FredKorematsu, an American-born citizen of Japanesedescent, refused to leave his home in San Leandro,California. Duly convicted, he appealed, and in 1944 hiscase reached the Supreme Court. A 6-3 majority on theCourt upheld Korematsus conviction.
Brown v Board of Education 1954Desegregates schoolsOverturns Plessy v FergusonBrown v. Board of Education (1954), nowacknowledged as one of the greatest Supreme Courtdecisions of the 20th century, unanimously held thatthe racial segregation of children in public schoolsviolated the Equal Protection Clause of the FourteenthAmendment. Although the decision did not succeedin fully desegregating public education in the UnitedStates, it put the Constitution on the side of racialequality and galvanized the nascent civil rightsmovement into a full revolution.
Engel v Vitale 1962Prayer in School Violates the 1st AmendmentThis case determined that it is unconstitutional forstate officials to compose an official schoolprayer and encourage its recitation in publicschools. The case was brought by the families ofpublic school students in New Hyde Park, NewYork who complained that the voluntary prayerwritten by the state board of regents to "AlmightyGod" contradicted their religious beliefs. Theywere supported by groups opposed to the schoolprayer including rabbinical organizations, EthicalCulture, and Judaic organizations.
Gideon v Wainwright 1963Right to LawyerIn Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Supreme Courtruled that the Constitution requires the states toprovide defense attorneys to criminal defendantscharged with serious offenses who cannot affordlawyers themselves.
Miranda v Arizona 1966Police must Inform Accused of their RightsIn Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Supreme Court ruledthat detained criminal suspects, prior to policequestioning, must be informed of their constitutionalright to an attorney and against self-incrimination.
Roe v Wade 1971Gave Women the Right to AbortionRoe v. Wade (1973) ruled unconstitutional a state lawthat banned abortions except to save the life of themother. The Court ruled that the states were forbiddenfrom outlawing or regulating any aspect of abortionperformed during the first trimester of pregnancy,could only enact abortion regulations reasonablyrelated to maternal health in the second and thirdtrimesters, and could enact abortion laws protectingthe life of the fetus only in the third trimester. Even then,an exception had to be made to protect the life of themother.
New York Times v USFreedom of the pressNational security not threatened by Pentagon PapersThis ruling made it possible for the New York Timesand Washington Post newspapers to publish thethen-classified Pentagon Papers without risk ofgovernment censorship or punishment.President Richard Nixon had claimed executiveauthority to force the Times to suspend publicationof classified information in its possession. The questionbefore the court was whether the constitutionalfreedom of the press, guaranteed by the FirstAmendment, was subordinate to a claimed need ofthe executive branch of government to maintain thesecrecy of information. The Supreme Court ruled thatthe First Amendment did protect the right of the NewYork Times to print the materials.
Regents of U of California v Bakke 1978Affirmative Action Programs ConstitutionalIn Regents of University of California v. Bakke(1978), the Supreme Court ruled that a universitysuse of racial "quotas" in its admissions process wasunconstitutional, but a schools use of "affirmativeaction" to accept more minority applicants wasconstitutional in some circumstances.