Key SCOTUS decisions
See Also: List of SCOTUS decisions
Marbury v. Madison (1803)
McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)
Established a broad reading of federal power under the necessary and proper clause of the U.S. Constitution by finding that Congress had the power to create a national bank. Famous for its holding that "The power to tax involves the power to destroy.", as it determined that state taxation of the federal government created Bank of the United States was unconstitutional.
Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)
Extended the commerce clause to establish federal government pre-eminence over both state and corporate power, laid groundwork for anti-trust action of late 19th century.
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
Established that slaves were property rather than U.S. citizens (which lead to the 14th Amendment's creation of birth right citizenship) and held that the property rights of slave owners even in "free territories" of the federal government.
Ex parte Milligan (1866)
The Constitution applies at all times and President Lincoln did not have the right to deprive persons of the right to Habeas Corpus in a place where the Courts were functioning.
Slaughter-House Cases (1873)
Virtually eliminated the privileges and immunities clause of the 14th Amendment as a source of civil rights.
Declared that the 14th amendment creates corporate personhood, giving corporations all of the rights of individuals.
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
Established the standard of "separate but equal."
Schenck v. United States (1919)
Established the "clear and present danger" test for restrictions on free speech. The text of the decision is the origin of the "fire in a crowded theater" reference.
Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925)
Oregon law required that children, with some exceptions, attend public schools. Private schools challenged the law, arguing that it violated a parent's right to direct the education of their children. The Supreme Court agreed, citing the 14th Amendment right to liberty: "The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only."
Congress has the power under the commerce clause to regulate intrastate activities, such as labor relations, which have "substantial effects" on commerce.
Ex parte Quirin (1942)
Military commissions can try “unlawful combatants” even if they are American citizens. An exception to Milligan [] in that Congress had declared war.
Korematsu v. United States (1944)
Upheld legality of Japanese internment under war powers. Ex parte Endo (1944) limited Korematsu, holding that persons of proven loyalty should not be interned. Congress apologized and granted $1.25 billion in compensation to tens of thousands of survivors in 1988. This case is widely viewed as one of the U.S. Supreme Court's greatest mistakes.
In re Yamashita (1946)
Commanding officers may be held criminally liable for the acts of those under their command for mere inaction without showing that the officer knew of the act being committed by those under his command.
The President must obey the law and the courts, even when acting as Commander-in-Chief.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and ruled that segregation of schools is unconstitutional.
Mapp v. Ohio (1961)
Established the exclusionary rule: illegally obtained evidence cannot be used in court.
Baker v. Carr (1962)
Established the principle of one man, one vote in state and local elections. Prior to this decision, many states apportioned at least one house of the state legislature by county or some other non-population basis in a manner similar to the U.S. Senate.
Gideon v. Wainright (1963)
Ordered states to provide lawyers for those unable to afford them in criminal proceedings.
Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)
Griswold, and others violated Connecticut law in providing contraceptive information, devices, and drugs to a married Connecticut couple. They appealed their conviction to the Supreme Court, arguing the law violated the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed. Citing the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Ninth Amendments, the Supreme Court found that the right to privacy is implicit in the Constitution, and that it precludes laws such as Connecticut.
Miranda v. Arizona (1966)
Established standard requiring law enforcement officials to advise suspects of their "Miranda rights" (rights to counsel and to remain silent) before questioning. See also Criminal Procedure.
Loving v. Virginia (1967)
Overturned Virginia's miscegenation laws which outlawed mixed race marriages. The decision removed racial discrimination in the issuance of state-sanctioned marriage licenses and compelled all states to recognize mixed-race marriages.
Epperson v. Arkansas (1968)
Prohibited states from banning the teaching of evolution.
Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)
Students had a First Amendment right to wear black arm bands to their public school in protest of the Vietnam War.
Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)
Established three part test to determine if the establishment clause has been violated: nonsecular purpose, advances/inhibits religion, and excessive entanglement with government.
Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972)
Baird violated Massachusetts law in providing a contraceptive device to an unmarried woman. He appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, arguing the law violated the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed. Citing the right to equal protection, the Supreme Court found that Massachusetts had no rational basis for distinguishing between unmarried and married persons with respect to the use of contraception, and could not therefore criminalize its use by one and not the other.
Roe v. Wade (1973)
United States v. Nixon (1974)
Legally established executive privilege, but limited it by prohibiting its use in criminal cases.
U.C. Regents v. Bakke (1978)
The advocacy of use of force or violence does not construe the the act of force or violence, and thus is protected by the First Amendment of the Bill Of Rights
Texas v. Johnson (1989)
Flag burning is protected by the First Amendment.
Romer v. Evans (1996)
A Colorado amendment forbade any government action to protect gays, lesbians, and bisexuals against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Aspen, Boulder, and Denver, as well as several gay Coloradans, challenged the law in state court, and ultimately prevailed: the state court found that the amendment violated the fundamental right to political participation. Colorado then appealed to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the judgment, but for a different reason. The Supreme Court found that as the amendment advanced no legitimate government interest, the distinction made between gay and straight Coloradans violated the right to equal protection.
Bush v. Gore (2000)
- Opinion (Download PDF court opnion)
Minnesota v. White (2002)
In a 5-4 ruling, the Court struck down a Minnesota law prohibiting elected judges from campaigning on issues related to their judicial philosophy (i.e. how they might rule on certain kinds of case in the future). This has caused many states to reconsider their system of electing judges.
Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003)
In a pair of rulings involving affirmative action at the University of Michigan, the Supreme Court ruled that, because of the broad social value of diversity in the classroom, race can be a factor in shaping admissions policies. Race cannot be the overriding factor, however, and universities must be creative in their approach without resorting to definitive point systems or quotas that may favor minorties.
Lawrence v. Texas (2003)
In a 6-3 ruling, the Court struck down Texas's sodomy laws on an equal protection argument and invalidated all such laws nationwide. This ruling also overturned the precedent set by Bowers v. Hardwick and established the right for consenting adults to be free to do what they wish in their bedrooms.
The Enemy Combatant Cases (2004-2005)
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of persons detained in American controlled areas to contest their detention in the Courts, but also affirmed the existence of some form of "enemy combatant" who could be detained without formal criminal charges. Subsequent cases in the wake of that case are exploring the extent to which these cases really give detainees rights.
Blakely v. Washington (2004)
Invalidated Washington State's sentencing guidelines since they took too much power to find facts away from juries. This in turn led to the invalidation of the federal sentencing guidelines in the Booker and Fanfan cases, fundmentally altering the structure of federal criminal law.
Kelo v. New London (2005)
Extended the power of eminent domain, so that local governments could take property from one owner and give it to another for the sole purpose of economic development.
In this 7-2 decision, the Court, Anthony Kennnedy writing the majority opinion, gave its blessing for states to re-apportion their electoral districts essentially at will. The specific case was brought by Texas Democrats after the Republican-controlled legislature redid its districts, giving the Republicans an increased number of safe seats in both Congress and the Texas legislature. The decision was somewhat narrowly decided: mainly, Kennedy ruled that since the original 1991 re-apportionment scheme was essentially a gerrymander, what was good for the goose was sauce for the gander. The court avoided deciding if gerrymandering per se was constitutional, however.
It did rule, however, that Texas Congressional District 23 violated the Voting Rights Act, and therefore was sent back to a lower court for resolution.
Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006)
The Court ruled that neither Congress's post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), nor the inherent powers of the President gave the President the authoirty to establish military tribunals on Guantanamo Bay to try and convict alleged enemy combatants in the war on terror. The Court found the commissions illegal under both military justice law and the Geneva Convention. The decision was essentially based on US law, and not as a constitutional issue. The real bombshell is the Court's tacit granting of legal status to the Geneva Conventions.