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Historic Cases

_____ Supreme Court History _____
Overview
Past Justices
Choosing Cases
Oral Arguments
Making Decisions
Historic Cases
The Supreme Court has issued dozens of landmark rulings during its history, and many shaped American government and the breadth of individual rights. While some did not endure, such as the 1857 "Dred Scott" ruling (see Scott v. Sandford below), all reflect the mood of the court and dilemmas facing the country at historic junctures. These are among the most crucial.

Door with scene on it Bronze doors at the main entrance depict great moments in the evolution of law. (The Post – Ray Lustig)

Marbury v. Madison (1803)
Asserted the court's power to review acts of Congress and invalidate those that conflict with the Constitution. When incoming President Thomas Jefferson refused to honor last-minute appointees of President John Adams, one of those appointees, William Marbury, sued the new secretary of state, James Madison. Marbury asked the Supreme Court to order Madison to deliver his commission as a justice of the peace. The court said it lacked the power to do this because the law that Congress passed authorizing the court to issue such orders had gone further in granting power than the Constitution allowed. The case, while limiting the court's power in this instance, ultimately established its power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional.
Case summary and Court opinion

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)
In ruling that Congress has authority to charter a national bank, the court said Congress had broad power to enact all laws that are "necessary and proper." The ruling became a benchmark for the court's approval over the decades of broad national involvement in economic and social programs.
Case summary and Court opinion

Scott v. Sandford (1857)
Declared that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in the territories. Dred Scott, a Missouri slave who had traveled to and worked in "free" states and territories, asserted that he should be entitled to his freedom under the legal principle, "once free, always free." But the court said blacks could not achieve U.S. citizenship and therefore could not sue in federal courts. Ruling that Congress could not abolish slavery in the territories, the court also declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional. The ruling, which helped to precipitate the Civil War, has long been considered one of the court's great "self-inflicted" wounds.
Case summary and Court opinion

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)
Struck down the "separate but equal" doctrine that the court established in 1886 in Plessy v. Ferguson, which permitted racial segregation of public facilities. In a case consolidating several challenges to segregation of public schools, the court concluded "that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The opinion spurred a social revolution and changes in race relations across America.
Case summary and Court opinion

Baker v. Carr (1962)
Allowed federal courts to hear challenges to demarcation of voting districts and to require them to have more nearly equal populations. The case began in Tennessee, which had not redrawn state legislative districts for about 60 years, even as millions moved out of rural districts and into cities. The decision broke the rural lock on political power and gave urban voters more nearly equivalent representation.
Case summary and Court opinion

Engel v. Vitale (1962)
Forbade public schools from requiring students to recite prayers. New York school officials had recommended that students say a specified nondenominational prayer each day, but the court said "the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that in this country it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers...."
Case summary and Court opinion

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)
Ruled for the first time that the First Amendment covers libelous statements. The court said public officials may not win damages for defamatory statements regarding their official conduct unless they can prove "actual malice," that is, that the statements were made knowing that they were false or with reckless disregard of whether they were true or false.
Case summary and Court opinion

Miranda v. Arizona (1966)
Required police to inform suspects in custody of their right to remain silent, that anything they say may be used against them and that they have a right to representation by a lawyer before interrogation. At the time, the 5-4 decision distressed law enforcement and outraged then-President Richard M. Nixon and other politicians, but the decision endured.
Case summary and Court opinion

Roe v. Wade (1973)
Made abortion legal nationwide through a constitutional right to privacy. Using legal reasoning that would be attacked by some scholars and generate a new "right to life" movement among the public, the court said the 14th Amendment's due process clause guarantees a woman's right to end a pregnancy. In 1989, the court came close to overruling Roe v. Wade. But in 1992, the justices upheld the essential holding of Roe in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey.
Case summary and Court opinion

United States v. Nixon (1974)
Ruled that neither the great deference afforded the president nor the doctrine of "separation of powers" gives a president an absolute privilege of immunity from a court's demand for evidence in a criminal trial. The decision forced President Nixon to turn over tapes of White House conversations relating to the break-in at the Democratic Party national headquarters in the Watergate office building. Within three weeks, Nixon resigned the presidency.
Case summary and Court opinion

Bush v. Gore (2000)
Held that the Florida Supreme Court's plan to recount state ballots in the campaign of George W. Bush versus Al Gore was unconstitutional. This ended the legal battle in the 2000 election for the United States presidency.
Case summary and Court opinion

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