Since its creation, the U.S. Supreme Court has passed judgment on issues that the other two branches of the federal government have perhaps failed to fully resolve. Most decisions made by the court’s nine justices pass unnoticed by the public. Then there are the court cases that spur massive public protests and spark endless debates among legal scholars. Those cases with the most lasting impact on the American way of life have often had a ripple effect that took years to work down through our society before the judgments were fully comprehended, a process that continues to this day. Here’s a look at 10 historic Supreme Court decisions — in chronological order — that have shaped America, for better or worse.
10. William Marbury v. James Madison, Secretary of State of the United States (1803)
This is a fairly complicated decision, but without it, the Supreme Court as we know it today would not exist. Marbury v. Madison essentially put the judicial branch on equal footing with the legislative and executive branches of government. The case — which began with Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to prevent Marbury from becoming a justice of the peace in the District of Columbia — introduced the principle of judicial review in America. Chief Justice John Marshall’s court declared unanimously that a law passed by Congress should not be enforced, because it violated the U.S. Constitution. This set the precedent we have today of the Supreme Court having power to rule acts of Congress unconstitutional.
9. Dred Scott v. John F.A. Sandford (1857)
The consensus has long been that Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney’s decision in this case was the worst in the court’s history, and it’s easy to understand why. Scott was a slave who, like so many before him, sued for his freedom, having spent some time in free states. Taney refrained from granting it, but didn’t stop there. He also ruled as unconstitutional the Missouri Compromise, by which the matter of extending slavery into new states had been settled. And although Taney allowed that blacks could be considered citizens of free states, he said they had no right to U.S. citizenship, which came as news to African Americans who had lived their entire lives in freedom. The South cheered the ruling, while northern states essentially ignored it, as it became increasingly apparent that the issue of slavery in the U.S. would have to be resolved through armed conflict.
8. Homer A. Plessy v. John H. Ferguson (1896)
The Supreme Court followed up the Dred Scott case with this equally ignominious decision, in which the “separate but equal” doctrine was sealed into law nationwide. In his majority opinion, Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote that Louisiana’s Separate Car Act did not violate the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment because separate — but equal — rail cars for blacks and whites did not imply legal inequality but only social inequality, which, Brown wrote, was not within the court’s purview. Plessy v. Ferguson erased Reconstruction’s legal efforts to eliminate racial inequality in one fell swoop. It gave official sanction to the Jim Crow laws, which became prevalent in the South, as well as some cities in the northern U.S. And it would be another half century before the high court corrected this mistake.
7. Oliver L. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas (1954)
In a clear repudiation of the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, the high court in this case, via a unanimous decision, declared the doctrine of “separate but equal” to be inherently unequal, at least as it had been applied to education. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that separate schools for black children created a palpable sense of inferiority, citing several studies, and the case had been brought before the Supreme Court by plaintiffs who found such schools to be inferior in actuality as well, based on several benchmarks.
The ruling spurred the civil rights movement in the U.S., as its legal arguments were promptly applied to segregated facilities of all kinds. It also ushered in several decades of concerted efforts to desegregate schools around the United States. But many observers in recent years have lamented the steady movement back toward segregation in many areas as private schools and other forms of alternative education leave public schools with growing percentages of minority students.
6. Clarence E. Gideon v. Louie L. Wainwright, Corrections Director (1963)
Today it’s difficult to imagine a criminal defendant going to trial without the right to an attorney. The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution spells out that right, but until this ruling the states had some leeway on how to interpret it. Gideon, an indigent man accused of burglarizing a pool hall in Florida, was informed he didn’t have a right to legal representation in that state because his wasn’t a capital case. But after studying the law in prison, Gideon appealed, and ultimately the Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Hugo Black, agreed with him, stating that Gideon’s right to due process under the 14th Amendment had been violated. Public defenders are now the law of the land in all 50 states, but their caseloads are heavy. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, they spend about six minutes on each arraignment.
5. Ernesto Miranda v. State of Arizona (1966)
“You have the right to remain silent. …” It’s one of the best-known phrases in America, at least to anyone who’s ever watched a police procedural on television. Miranda v. Arizona was the Warren court’s second high-profile ruling in favor of defendants’ rights in four years, but unlike Gideon, it was far from unanimous. The chief justice wrote for a slim 5-4 majority, while two justices penned dissenting opinions and another dissented in part, calling the ruling anti-law enforcement. In overturning Miranda’s conviction on rape and kidnapping, the court ruled that he had incriminated himself because police hadn’t informed him of his right to counsel during his confession. Since then, courts have carved out a handful of exceptions to the Miranda warning, one of which — the public safety exception — has at times been interpreted rather broadly.
4. Jane Roe v. Henry Wade, District Attorney of Dallas County (1973)
Perhaps no other decision rendered by the Supreme Court in its history has stirred more controversy than the one outlawing a Texas provision against most abortions. At the time of the ruling, the majority of abortions were illegal in a majority of states. Roe changed all that, and in so doing helped to radicalize elements on both the pro-choice and pro-life sides of the abortion debate. Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion found the right to abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy within the “zone of privacy” assured in four of the Constitution’s amendments. The court also could find no justification for terming prenatal life a person under the Constitution, which particularly rankles abortion opponents today.
Roe v. Wade still impacts the Supreme Court today, in cases that have nothing to do with abortion, as every court nominee for the past generation has been thoroughly vetted by pro-abortion groups such as NARAL to determine their stance on abortion. While critics have decried the prospect of using this so-called “litmus test” for abortion rights in choosing Supreme Court justices, the issue arises each time a new candidate is nominated. And the Roe v. Wade decision continues to divide and intrigue legal scholars. In 2013, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she felt the court’s decision in Roe might have been too far-reaching.
3. Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (2010)
The camp that believes money is speech, and that corporations are people, got what it wished for when the Supreme Court allowed organizations, from nonprofits to large corporations, to make unrestricted political contributions. Supporters of the tight 5-4 decision initially ran the gamut, from the National Rifle Association to the ACLU to many newspaper editorial pages. Quite a few politicians, meanwhile, of both parties, warned of an imminent backlash against the decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion, wrote that the First Amendment allows any association of citizens the right to political speech, which sounds innocent enough, but the ruling served as precedent for a lower-court decision, also in 2010, which gave rise to so-called super PACs (political action committees), which are now pumping money into politics to an unprecedented degree.
2. National Federation of Independent Business v. Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services (2012)
Throughout its long history, the Supreme Court has often needed several cases to determine where it stands on an issue, racial equality being the most notable example. It remains to be seen where it will finally come down on the role of government in our health care, but it began the process with this ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion let the law’s insurance mandate pass as a tax, but, in a win for federalism, the justices, by a vote of 5-4, ruled that the states could not be forced to accept an expansion of Medicaid.
1. United States v. Edith Schlain Windsor (2013)
In correcting instances of racial inequality, the high court has boiled the issue down to whether a law treated one group of people differently than another. That became the constitutional sniff test. Before long, legal scholars expect, it will be used by the court to rule on whether same-sex marriage is a right to which all Americans are entitled. It first turned down this road in the Windsor case, in which justices essentially struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. Signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, that act allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages as legally binding. In his opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy ruled that under DOMA such couples had “their lives burdened … in visible and public ways.” Since then, many states have used the case to legalize gay marriage, but a more definitive ruling on the issue is anticipated.