LANDMARK DECISIONS OF THE U.S. SUPREME COURT

A landmark decision is the outcome of a legal case (often referred to as a landmark case) that establishes a precedent that either substantially changes the interpretation of the law or that simply establishes new case law on a particular issue.

Most of the hyperlinks, below, lead to the Oyez Web site and a very brief discussion of each case, as well as a very brief description of the subsequent ruling by the Court.  For more information on a case, including the written majority opinion, concurring opinion(s), and dissenting opinion(s), try one or more of the following sites:  Findlaw Supreme Court Center or Cornell Law School's Supreme Court Collection

The World Wide Web is inhabited with numerous wonders, and UMKC law professor Douglas O. Linder has three Web sites that are definitely worth visiting:  Famous Trials -- Exploring First Amendment Law -- and Exploring Constitutional Law.

Click on a link below to go to the cases in that category.
Federalism Cases
Civil Liberties Cases
Civil Rights Cases
Criminal Rights Cases
Second Amendment Cases
Property Rights Cases
Selective Incorporation Cases

FEDERALISM
Federalism Court Cases Practice Quiz

  • Was Marbury entitled to his appointment to the federal bench? Was his lawsuit the correct way to get it? And, was the Supreme Court the place for Marbury to get the relief he requested?
  • The case presented two questions: Did Congress have the authority to establish the Bank of the United States? Did the Maryland law unconstitutionally interfere with congressional powers?
  • Gibbons v. Ogden - 1824

  • Did the State of New York exercise authority in a realm reserved exclusively to Congress, namely, the regulation of interstate commerce?
  • Humphrey's Executor v. United States – 1935
    Did section 1 of the Federal Trade Commission Act unconstitutionally interfere with the executive power of the President?
  • Is the President's right to safeguard certain information, using his "executive privilege" confidentiality power, entirely immune from judicial review?
  • U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton - 1995
    Can states alter those qualifications for the U.S. Congress that are specifically enumerated in the Constitution?  Are states qualified to set term limits on members of the United States Congress?
  • Clinton v. Jones - 1997
    Is a serving President, for separation of powers reasons, entitled to absolute immunity from civil litigation arising out of events which transpired prior to his taking office?
  • Printz v. United States - 1997
    Using the Necessary and Proper Clause of Article I as justification, can Congress temporarily require state law enforcement officials to regulate handgun purchases by performing those duties called for by the Brady Bill's handgun applicant background-checks?
  • Engel v. Vitale (1962) 
    The Court ruled all school-sanctioned prayer in public schools unconstitutional.
  • Abington School District v. Schempp (1963) 
    The Court struck down a Pennsylvania law requiring that each public school day open with Bible reading.
  • The Court overturned a state law setting aside a minute for “voluntary prayer” in public schools.
  • Does Michael Newdow have standing to challenge as unconstitutional a public school district policy that requires teachers to lead willing students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance? Does a public school district policy that requires teachers to lead willing students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, which includes the words "under God," violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

Religious Freedom:  Free Exercise Clause

  • The Court ruled that Amish adolescents could be exempt from a state law compelling school attendance
  • The Court found laws passed by four Florida cities banning animal sacrifice were targeted at the Santeria religion, which employs animal sacrifice in prayer, and as such the laws were unconstitutional.
  • The Court began applying the Free Exercise Clause to the states and recognized an absolute freedom of belief.
  • Does a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of a state capitol building violate the First Amendment's establishment clause, which barred the government from passing laws "respecting an establishment of religion"?

Freedom of Expression – General

  • During World War I, Mr. Schenck mailed fliers to draftees urging them to peacefully protest the draft. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that the First Amendment did not protect Schenck since, during wartime, such expression would create a clear and present danger.
  • The Supreme Court applied protection of free speech to the states (incorporation).
  • The Court ruled the West Virginia School Board’s policy requiring students and teachers to recite the pledge of allegiance unconstitutional.
  • The Supreme Court ruled that wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War was “pure speech,” or symbolic speech, thus protected by the First Amendment. The principal’s right to forbid conduct that substantially interfered with school discipline was outweighed by the students’ right to free expression.
  • The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protected Mr. Brandenburg’s speech advocating violence at a Ku Klux Klan rally.
  • This case set forth rules for obscenity prosecutions, but also gave states and localities flexibility in determining what is obscene. The four dissenters argued even the most general attempt to define obscenity for the entire nation was outside the scope of the Court’s power.
  • The Supreme Court protected flag-burning as symbolic speech: “Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
  • Reno v. ACLU (1997) 
    The Supreme Court held that the 1996 Communications Decency Act was unconstitutional, since it was overly broad and vague in its regulation of speech on the internet, and it attempted to regulate indecent speech, which is protected.

Freedom of Expression – Campaign Finance

  • This campaign finance case disallowed limits on campaign expenditures, but permitted  “reasonable restrictions” on individual, corporate and group contributions to candidates. The Supreme Court recently upheld the $1,000 limit.
  • The Supreme Court ruled that campaign spending by political parties on behalf of congressional candidates may not be limited, as long as the parties work independently of the candidates.

Freedom of the Press

  • Zenger was a printer, publisher, editor and journalist whose indictment, trial and acquittal on sedition and libel charges was an important contributing factor to the development of the freedom of the press in America.  Although this court case occurred during the colonial period of American history, it remains one of the landmark cases in our nation’s legal history.
  • This case struck down a statute authorizing the state to seek injunctions against routine publishers of malicious or defamatory information, extending protection of freedom of the press to the states (incorporation).
  • The Court stated that the First Amendment protected all statements about public officials, unless the speaker lies with the intent to defame. This case overturned a judgment awarding damages to an Alabama policeman after the New York Times ran a critical ad.
  • This case lifted a temporary injunction against publication of leaked information, since such publication would not cause an “inevitable, direct and immediate” event imperiling the safety of American forces; often referred to as the Pentagon Papers case.
  • Ruled the First Amendment prohibits public figures from recovering damages for intentional infliction of emotional harm, without showing the publication contained a false statement of fact made with actual malice.
  • Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier - 1988
    Did a high school principal's deletion of the articles from the school newspaper violate the students' rights under the First Amendment?

Right to Assemble and Petition the Government

  • Did a Massachusetts State Court's mandate to Boston's Veterans' Council, requiring it to include GLIB members in its parade, violate the Council's free speech rights as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments?
  • Does the application of New Jersey's public accommodations law violate the Boy Scouts' First Amendment right of expressive association to bar homosexuals from serving as troop leaders?
  • This case extended to the states the federal protection of the right to peaceably assemble for lawful discussion.
  • The Supreme Court ruled that the National Socialist (Nazi)  Party could not be prohibited from marching peacefully, simply because of the content of their message.
  • The Supreme Court overturned a fifteen-foot “floating buffer” around patients leaving or entering an abortion clinic; though, “fixed buffers” were permitted since they protected the government’s interest in public safety.

CIVIL RIGHTS COURT CASES
Civil Rights Court Cases Practice Quiz

Discrimination Based on Race

  • Dred Scott v. Sandford - 1857
    After residing in a “free” state for ten years, then returning to Missouri with his owner, was Dred Scott free or slave?
  • Plessy v. Ferguson - 1896
    Was Louisiana's law mandating racial segregation on its trains an unconstitutional infringement on both the privileges and immunities and the equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment?
  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas - 1954
    Did the segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprive the minority children of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment?
  • Korematsu v. United States - 1944
    Did the President and Congress go beyond their war powers by implementing exclusion and restricting the rights of Americans of Japanese descent?

Discrimination Based on Gender

  • Craig v. Boren – 1976
    Did an Oklahoma statute violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause by establishing different drinking ages for men and women?
  • United States v. Virginia - 1996
    Does Virginia's creation of a women's-only academy, as a comparable program to a male-only academy, satisfy the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause?
  • Frontiero v. Richardson - 1973
    Did a federal law, requiring different qualification criteria for male and female military spousal dependency, unconstitutionally discriminate against women thereby violating the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause?

Affirmative Action

  • Regents of the University of California v. Bakke - 1978
    Did the University of California violate the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by practicing an affirmative action policy that resulted in the repeated rejection of Bakke's application for admission to its medical school?
  • Adarand Constructors v. Pena - 1995
    Is the presumption of disadvantage based on race alone, and consequent allocation of favored treatment, a discriminatory practice that violates the Fifth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause?
  • Grutter v. Bollinger - 2003
    Did the University of Michigan Law School's use of racial preferences in student admissions violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

Discrimination Based On Sexual Orientation

  • Bowers v. Hardwick - 1986
    Does the Constitution confer a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in consensual sodomy, thereby invalidating the laws of many states which make such conduct illegal?
  • Romer v. Evans - 1996
    Did Amendment 2 of Colorado's State Constitution, forbidding the extension of official protections to those who suffer discrimination due to their sexual orientation, violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause?
  • Lawrence v. Texas - 2003
    Did the criminal convictions of John Lawrence and Tyron Garner under the Texas "Homosexual Conduct" law, which criminalizes sexual intimacy by same-sex couples, but not identical behavior by different-sex couples, violate the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection of laws? Did their criminal convictions for adult consensual sexual intimacy in the home violate their vital interests in liberty and privacy protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment? Should Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) be overruled?

Birth Control And Abortion

  • Griswold v. Connecticut - 1965
    Does the Constitution protect the right of marital privacy against state restrictions on a couple's ability to be counseled in the use of contraceptives?
  • Roe v. Wade - 1973
    Does the Constitution embrace a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy by abortion?
  • Planned Parenthood v. Casey - 1992
    Can a state require women who want an abortion to obtain informed consent, wait 24 hours, and, if minors, obtain parental consent, without violating their right to abortions as guaranteed by Roe v. Wade?

Right To Die

  • Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Dept. of Health - 1990
    Did the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment permit Cruzan's parents to refuse life-sustaining treatment on their vegetated daughter's behalf?
  • Vacco v. Quill - 1997
    Did New York's ban on physician-assisted suicide violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause by allowing competent terminally ill adults to withdraw their own lifesaving treatment, but denying the same right to patients who could not withdraw their own treatment and could only hope that a physician would do so for them?
  • Washington v. Glucksberg - 1997
    Did Washington's ban on physician assisted-suicide violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause by denying competent terminally ill adults the liberty to choose death over life?
  • Gonzales v. Oregon - 2006
    Did the Controlled Substances Act authorize the attorney general to ban the use of controlled substances for physician-assisted suicide in Oregon?

Power Of Congress To Enforce Civil Rights

  • Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States - 1964
    Did Congress, in passing Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, exceed its Commerce Clause powers by depriving motels, such as the Heart of Atlanta, of the right to choose their own customers?
  • Were the procedures used to commit 15-year-old Gerald Francis Gault to a prison facility constitutionally legitimate under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
  • T.L.O. was a fourteen-year-old girl accused of smoking in the girls' bathroom of her high school. A principal at the school questioned her and searched her purse, yielding a bag of marijuana and other drug paraphernalia. Did the search violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments?

Freedom From Unreasonable Search And Seizure

  • Were the confiscated materials protected by the First Amendment? (May evidence obtained through a search in violation of the Fourth Amendment be admitted in a state criminal proceeding?)
  • Does the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures require the police to obtain a search warrant in order to wiretap a public pay phone?
  • Does random drug testing of high school athletes violate the reasonable search and seizure clause of the Fourth Amendment?
  • Was the Student Activities Drug Testing Policy, adopted by the Tecumseh, Oklahoma School District,, which required all students who participate in competitive extracurricular activities to submit to drug testing, consistent with the Fourth Amendment?

Right To An Attorney

  • Did the state court's failure to appoint counsel for Gideon violate his right to a fair trial and due process of law as protected by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments?
  • Was Escobedo denied the right to counsel as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment?
  • Does the police practice of interrogating individuals without notifiying them of their right to counsel and their protection against self-incrimination violate the Fifth Amendment?

Capital Punishment

  • Does the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty in these cases – Furman v. Georgia, Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas - constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments?
  • Is the imposition of the death sentence prohibited under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments as "cruel and unusual" punishment?
  • Was a Texas trial court's supplemental instruction on mitigating evidence of mental retardation under the state's "special circumstances" for sentencing in capital murder cases to a jury constitutionally adequate? Does the admission into evidence of statements from a psychiatric report based on an uncounseled interview with the defendant violate the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination?
  • Roper v. Simmons - 2005
    Does the execution of minors violate the prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment" found in the Eighth Amendment and applied to the states through the incorporation doctrine of the 14th Amendment?

Cruel and Unusual Punishment in Non-Capital Cases

  • Is a statutorily mandated sentence that does not allow for consideration of mitigating factors a violation of the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishments?

Extra-Legal Jury Influences, Pretrial Publicity

  • What threshold must be crossed before a trial is said to be so prejudicial, due to context and publicity, as to interfere with a defendant's Fifth Amendment due process right to a fair trial?

Criminal Procedure

  • The Supreme Court ruled that the indigent of society, when charged with a capital crime, must be given competent counsel, at the expense of the citizens.
  • Betts v. Brady (1942) 
    Betts was indicted for robbery and detained in a Maryland jail. Prior to his trial, he asked for counsel to represent him. This request was denied and he was soon convicted. While incarcerated, Betts filed a habeas corpus petition in the lower courts. After they rejected his petitions, he filed a certiorari petition with the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear his case. Bett argued that his 6th Amendment right to a fair trial was violated because of his lack of counsel. The State of Maryland held that most states did not require the appointment of counsel in non-capital cases and the circumstances of this particular case did not require it. Although the Court found in favor of Betts, it decided that the right to counsel must be decided on a case- by-case basis. This ruling was upheld for 20 years until it was overturned by Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963.
  • Mapp v. Ohio (1961) 
    The Supreme Court ruled that all evidence obtained by searches and seizures, in violation of the Constitution, is inadmissible in a state court. This is known as the “exclusionary rule.”
  • The Supreme Court overturned Betts v. Brady and required that any indigent, accused of a felony must be given an attorney at the public’s expense.
  • The Supreme Court extended the “exclusionary rule,” to also include any unconstitutionally obtained confessions. The Court said that once questioning reaches past a “general inquiry” the suspect has the right to have an attorney present.
  • The Supreme Court ruled that since the police had not informed Mr. Miranda of his Constitutional rights, Miranda’s conviction must be overturned.
  •  The Supreme Court ruled that Congress could not pass a law that would contradict a Supreme Court ruling. They cited Marbury v. Madison, as the source of their power. Judicial Review gave the Supreme Court final say on an act’s constitutionality. Justices writing in dissent called the ruling the “ . . . Pyramid of judicial arrogance.”
  • Medical marijuana case:  Does a medical necessity exception to the Controlled Substances Act's prohibition on the manufacture and distribution of various drugs, including marijuana, exist?
  • Does a fact (other than a prior conviction) necessary to increase a sentence beyond the statutory standard range need to be proved by a jury and beyond a reasonable doubt?
  • Do United States courts have jurisdiction to consider legal appeals filed on behalf of foreign citizens held by the United States military in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba?
  • Did the government violate Hamdi's Fifth Amendment right to Due Process by holding him indefinitely, without access to an attorney, based solely on an Executive Branch declaration that he was an "enemy combatant" who fought against the United States? Does the separation of powers doctrine require federal courts to defer to Executive Branch determinations that an American citizen is an "enemy combatant"?
  • Raich v. Gonzales - 2005
    Does the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 801) exceed Congress' power under the commerce clause as applied to the intrastate cultivation and possession of marijuana for medical use?

SECOND AMENDMENT COURT CASES

  • In this case, the Supreme Court recognized the right of the people to keep and bear arms.
  • The case determined whether the provision of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 that prohibits the possession of firearms by convicted felons (codified in 18 U.S.C. 922(g)  in 1986)  violated the Second Amendment The Court acknowledged that among the rights denied to convicted felons was the right to bear arms.
  • The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the phrase “the people” means the same in the Second Amendment as it does in the First, Fourth, Ninth amendments, and as it does in the Preamble of the U. S. Constitution. The reference to “the people" means all citizens and legal aliens while in the United States.
  • District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)
    In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. The Court based its holding on the text of the Second Amendment, as well as applicable language in state constitutions adopted soon after the Second Amendment. Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court. Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer filed dissenting opinions, each joined by the other as well as Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Stevens argued that the Second Amendment only protects the rights of individuals to bear arms as part of a well-regulated state militia, not for other purposes even if they are lawful. Justice Breyer agreed with Stevens' argument but also stated that even if possession were to be allowed for other reasons, any law regulating the use of firearms would have to be "unreasonable or inappropriate" to violate the Second Amendment. In Breyer's view, the D.C. laws at issue in this case were both reasonable and appropriate.
  • McDonald v. Chicago (2010) - oral arguments on Tuesday, March 2, 2010
  • Does a moratorium on development imposed during the process of devising a comprehensive land-use plan constitutes a per se taking of property requiring compensation under the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause?
  • Does a city violate the Fifth Amendment's takings clause if the city takes private property and sells it for private development, with the hopes the development will help the city's bad economy?  By “takings,” this generally refers to “eminent domain.”  Eminent domain is the right of a government or municipal quasi-public body to acquire private property for public use.  Property is acquired through a court action called condemnation, in which the court determines the use is a public use and decides the price or compensation to be paid to the owner.

SELECTIVE INCORPORATION COURT CASES

The following portions of the Bill of Rights have been incorporated against state governments:



Copyright © Debbie Twyman and Craig Whitney
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