After the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, President Donald Trump is on track to fill another Supreme Court vacancy. His first appointment, Justice Neil Gorsuch, was confirmed by the Senate in 2017—a seat the Senate blocked President Barack Obama from filling. Trump’s latest nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, is awaiting his fate. Under the current administration, the Supreme Court could shift even more to the right, a possibility that's worrying liberals.
This democratic institution is tasked with remaining neutral, interpreting the Constitution based on legality and not political ideology. However, people are often motivated to go to the polls based on whether a conservative or liberal judge will get to fill a slot, a trend seen among Republicans in the 2016 election. Who sits on the Supreme Court matters because the federal court determines how laws are enforced across the nation, and the judicial branch keeps a check on the executive and legislative branches. The Supreme Court’s rulings have given women the right to reproductive rights, required police officers to inform suspects of their rights and allowed citizens the right to carry handguns for self-defense.
Stacker used information from the law project Oyez, the United States Courts and news reports on Supreme Court decisions to come up with this list of 30 landmark Supreme Court cases. Click through to see how these cases have impacted American society.
In this 1803 case, the Supreme Court established judicial review after then-Secretary of State James Madison failed to deliver a Justice of the Peace commission to William Marbury following Thomas Jefferson's elections. The Court held that the provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that allowed Madison to bring his complaint was unconstitutional.
Chief Justice John Marshall held that any law that conflicted with the Constitution would then be rendered “null and void.” This decision made the Supreme Court what it is today, putting the judicial branch on equal footing with the legislative and executive branches.
In 1816, Congress chartered the Second Bank of the United States. The state of Maryland tried to impose taxes on the bank. In a unanimous decision under Chief Justice John Marshall, the Court held that the Necessary and Proper Clause gave Congress the authority to establish a national bank. The Court also held that states cannot have power over the federal government.
In 1857, Dred Scott, once a slave in Missouri, argued in court that he should be free after living in Illinois, where slavery wasn’t allowed. The Court held that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves,” whether a slave or not, wasn’t an American citizen and couldn’t sue in federal court.
In an opinion written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Court also ruled that they did not have the jurisdiction to ban slavery in U.S. territories, and the rights of slave owners were protected under the Fifth Amendment because slaves were considered property.
Under the Separate Car Act, Louisiana required black and white passengers to ride in different railroad cars. In 1892, Homer Plessy, who was considered black but was also seven-eighths Caucasian, challenged the act. Railroad companies didn’t like the policy either—they had to buy more cars. Plessy’s lawyers claimed the act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, but, he was convicted anyway.
The Court, under Chief Justice Henry Billings Brown, upheld Plessy’s conviction, arguing that segregation imposed by the states was constitutional. Justice John Marshall Harlan dissented, saying that all citizens should have equal access to civil rights.
Plessy v. Ferguson wasn’t challenged until 1954, when the Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion by a unanimous Court, which held that the “separate but equal” policy was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment. Warren, who became progressively more liberal as he aged, wrote the opinion in a way he felt the general public would be able to understand by incorporating information from social science studies.
Some Arkansas officials refused to abide by the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education to integrate their schools in 1958. In a unanimous decision with a per curiam opinion—meaning every judge wrote an opinion—under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court held that it was unconstitutional to deprive black students of equal protection under the law. Since Marbury v. Madisonmade the Supreme Court the ultimate law, all states were bound by the Brown decision.
The New York State Board of Regents was challenged after it allowed the reciting of a voluntary prayer before the start of school. The Court ruled that this was not a proper separation of church and state. Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, Justice Hugo L. Black authored the opinion holding that public schools cannot hold prayers because it is a violation of the Establishment Clause.
In an issue still debated today, the Court (of all-male justices) held that a woman's right to an abortion fell within the right to privacy. Reproductive rights were protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees “equal protection of the laws.” The ruling allowed women a legal abortion during the first trimester and defined different levels of state interest for the second and third trimesters.
Under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote the Roeopinion. Blackmun was remembered for his decisions concerning abortion, an issue that kept him on the Court until the confirmation of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Clarence Earl Gideon was denied the right to an attorney after he was charged with felony breaking and entering. Under Florida law at the time, state-appointed attorneys were only guaranteed for capital cases. In the Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, Justice Hugo L. Black issued a unanimous opinion ruling that criminal defendants in state court have a right to appointed counsel if they can’t afford one under the Sixth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment.
Dollree Mapp was convicted of possessing obscene materials after police confiscated them during an illegal search of her home. The Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, held that evidence obtained during an illegal search and seizure was a violation of the Fourth Amendment and inadmissible in a state court.
Police interrogated Ernesto Miranda in a rape and kidnapping case, obtaining a confession without informing Miranda that he could have a lawyer. The Supreme Court of Arizona held that Miranda’s rights weren’t violated because he didn’t specifically ask for an attorney. Chief Justice Earl Warren and the Court disagreed. Justice Warren delivered the opinion, ruling that the interrogation was a violation of Miranda’s Fifth Amendment rights. This decision led to the Miranda warning.
After The New York Times printed an ad that asked for donations to help defend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a public figure accused the paper of libel because the ad featured minor inaccuracies. The Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, held that “actual malice”—knowing the facts are wrong and printing them anyway—must be found for a claim of libel or defamation to be sustained when a public figure is concerned.
In 1965, Mary Beth Tinker, Christopher Eckhardt and John Tinker wore black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War and were sent home. The students—with the help of their parents—sued the school for violating their freedom of speech.
Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court held that students don’t lose their First Amendment rights just because they are at school. In order to justify restrictions of student speech, the school has to prove that the conduct would "materially and substantially interfere" with the operation of the school. The Tinker test is still used today.
Christopher Simmons was sentenced to death at age 17 after a murder conviction. The Court overturned Stanford v. Kentucky, which held that executing a minor was not unconstitutional. The Court, under Chief Justice William Rehnquist who dissented, held that times had changed and executing a minor was now “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Three men were stopped and searched by an officer who was not in uniform. One of the men, Terry, was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon. John Terry appealed, saying the search was a violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizures. Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court held 8-1 that police could search someone if they had a “reasonable” suspicion.
The ruling led to the legality of the “stop and frisk” rule, which has disproportionately affected black and Latino communities.
Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag in protest outside of the 1984 Republican National Convention. Texas law at the time made flag desecration illegal. The Court, under Chief Justice William Rehnquist who dissented, held that flag burning should be a form of “symbolic speech” protected by the First Amendment. The Court also held that the government can’t restrict speech and ideas just because some parts of society find them offensive.
Citizens United, a conservative non-partisan organization, sought an injunction against the Federal Election Committee to prevent the application of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act to its film about Hillary Clinton. Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court overturned Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and portions of McConnell v. FEC, holding that political speech (and funding) cannot be limited, even if it's from a corporation.
In 1958, Virginia residents Mildred Jeter, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were married in the District of Columbia. At the time, interracial marriage was prohibited under Virginia law. The couple was sentenced to a year in jail but had their sentence suspended as long as they left Virginia for 25 years. After the case reached the Supreme Court, the justices unanimously held that the Virginia law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that the Constitution meant "the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State."
Same-sex couples in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee challenged their state’s laws against same-sex marriages. The Court held that laws banning or not recognizing legal same-sex marriage violate the Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause extends the fundamental right to marry to all couples.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a dissent arguing that since the Constitution does not directly address same-sex marriage, the Court can’t decide whether states have to recognize or issue licenses for them. Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas also said the Court did not have jurisdiction on what they viewed as a state matter.
In the 2000 presidential election, Vice President Al Gore, who ran as a Democratic candidate for president, contested the voting results in Florida. On December 8, 2000, the Florida Supreme Court ordered that the Circuit Court in Leon County hand-count 9,000 contested ballots from Miami-Dade County. Then-governor George Bush, the Republican candidate requested that the U.S. Supreme Court review the matter.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bush, holding that the Florida recount was unconstitutional because the Equal Protection Clause guarantees voters that their ballots cannot be devalued by "later arbitrary and disparate treatment." Chief Justice William Rehnquist argued that the Florida recount violated the Constitution because the Florida Supreme Court's decision had created new election law, which only the state legislature may do.
During the Watergate scandal, President Richard Nixon claimed he was immune from subpoena and did not have to turn over audio tapes of conversations he recorded in the Oval Office due to executive privilege. He argued this gave him the right to withhold information from other government branches to preserve confidential communications within the executive branch, or to secure the national interest.
The Court ruled against Nixon, ordering that he had to turn over the audio tapes. Under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger—who authored a 31-page opinion—the Court granted that there was a limited executive privilege in areas of military or diplomatic affairs but gave preference to "the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of justice." Nixon resigned about two weeks after the release of the tapes.
T.L.O., a high school student, was sentenced as a juvenile to one-year probation after school officials found marijuana in her purse while they were looking for cigarettes. She appealed, claiming the search was a violation of her Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizures. The New Jersey Superior Court agreed with T.L.O, holding that the exclusionary rule of the Fourth Amendment applies to searches and seizures conducted by school officials in public schools.
The Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, overturned the New Jersey decision, holding that school officials had reasonably searched the student’s purse under the Fourth Amendment. The Court also held that school officials can search a student without a warrant or probable cause because students have a reduced expectation of privacy when at school.
Michigan resident Barbara Grutter, a white woman, applied for admission to the University of Michigan Law School in 1997. Grutter’s application was denied despite her high GPA and LSAT score. The law school admitted race was a factor in their admissions decisions because the school had a “compelling interest in achieving diversity among its student body.”
Under Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Court held that the Equal Protection Clause does not prevent the law school’s narrow use of race when factoring which students to admit. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote "in the context of its individualized inquiry into the possible diversity contributions of all applicants, the Law School's race-conscious admissions program does not unduly harm non-minority applicants."
Without a hearing, school principals suspended nine students from two high schools and one junior high school in Columbus, Ohio. The principal’s actions—while legal under Ohio law—were challenged, and a federal court found that the students' rights had been violated.
The Court, under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, sided with the students, holding that Ohio had to recognize the students' rights to an education under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court held that public school students should be given notice and a hearing if school officials want to suspend them.
After a report of gunshots, Houston police entered a home and found two men engaging in a consensual sex act. The men were arrested and convicted of violating a Texas statute that banned such acts between those of the same sex. The State Court of Appeals held that the statute was not unconstitutional, citing Bowers v. Hardwick, which held that there was no constitutional right to sodomy.
Under Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the Court overturned Bowers v. Hardwick. The Court struck down the Texas statute that made it illegal for two people of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct. The case was championed by gay rights advocates.
After a car accident, Nancy Beth Cruzan was left in a "persistent vegetative state." Missouri state officials wouldn’t allow Cruzan’s parents to take her off an artificial feeding tube without court approval. This was the first right-to-die case presented to the Court.
The Court ruled that individuals have the right to refuse medical treatment, but that does not extend to incompetent persons who aren’t able to make that decision for themselves. Without “clear and convincing” evidence that Cruzan wanted to die, her parents couldn’t end life support.
The decision, made under Chief Justice William Rehnquist, spurred many states to adopt advance directive laws that would allow patients to give instructions about their end-of-life decisions if they are rendered incapacitated.
Dick Anthony Heller, a police officer in Washington D.C., could carry a handgun while on duty, but D.C. law banned registration of handguns for personal use. Heller sued the District of Columbia.
The Court held that requiring handguns to be non-functional in the home—and banning their registration—violated the Second Amendment and didn’t allow people to protect themselves at home. The case established precedent used in McDonald v. Chicago, which determined that Chicago's handgun ban violated an individual's right to keep and bear arms for self-defense.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, the U.S. government kept Japanese-Americans in internment camps from 1942 to 1945. Japanese-American Fred Korematsu, who stayed in his residence instead of going to the camps, was arrested and convicted for violating Executive Order 9066 to relocate. He argued the order violated the Fifth Amendment.
Citing Hirabayashi v. U.S., the Supreme Court decided in favor of the United States. The Court, under Chief Justice Harlan Stone, held that the order wasn’t racist. It was an effort aimed at protecting the U.S., particularly those on the West Coast.
The Justice Department issued a “confession of error” about the case in 2011, and the decision was formally repudiated by the Court in 2018.
Although he was more than qualified, Allan Bakke, a white man, was rejected both times he applied to the University of California Medical School at Davis. Bakke argued he was not admitted because he was white. The school reserved 16 places in each entering class of 100 for "qualified" minorities as part of the university's affirmative action program to address previous unfair minority exclusions from the medical profession.
The Court, under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, decided in favor of Bakke but held that schools could use affirmative action policies by considering race as part of the application process.
Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, in 2010. Part of the ACA included an “individual mandate.” The administration amended the tax code to require people to purchase minimum health care coverage or pay a penalty. The ACA also required states to accept an expansion of Medicaid in order to receive federal funds for the program and added an employer mandate to obtain health coverage for employees.
The Court, under Chief Justice John Roberts, upheld the individual mandate, reasoning that the individual mandate was a reasonable tax. The Court also held that the Medicaid expansion was a valid exercise of Congress' spending power.