SELECTED KEY SUPREME COURT CASES
While not specifically provided for in the Constitution, it is relatively clear that the power of the Supreme Court to scrutinize legislation was intended by its framers. Two provisionsArticle III, Section 2 and Article IV, Section 2imply such power. Further, in The Federalist No. 78, Alexander Hamilton discussed the role of the judiciary, stating that whenever a law is determined to be in conflict with the Constitution, it is the duty of the Court to void that act. Such action on the part of the Supreme Court has come to be called "judicial review."
Hylton v. United States (1796)
The first time the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of a law, upholding a tax levied by Congress on carriages. The famous Marbury v. Madison decision would be the first in which an existing law was overturned by the Court.
Marbury v. Madison (1803)
Chief Justice Marshall firmly established "judicial review" as a power of the Supreme Court. After defeat in the 1800 election, President John Adams appointed many Federalists to the federal courts, but the Jefferson administration refused to deliver the commissions. One of the justices involved, William Marbury, sued in the Supreme Court. The Court declared a portion of the Judiciary Act of 1789 unconstitutional, thereby declaring the Court's power to find acts of Congress unconstitutional. The decision greatly increased the power and prestige of the federal judiciary, which had clearly emerged from the Constitutional Convention as the weakest link within the national government. It would be over a half century, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, before the Court would strike down another federal law.
Sturges v. Crowninshield (1819)
The case upheld the importance of contracts. A New York bankruptcy law was declared unconstitutional because the state had applied the act to debts incurred before the law was passed. Debts were considered contracts.
Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819)
The state of New Hampshire attempted to change Dartmouth from a private to a public institution, but the Supreme Court halted the action. The Supreme Court determined that a charter granted by the state (the college had been chartered by King George III in 1769) was a contract and could not be altered or canceled without consent of both parties.
McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)
Known as the "Bank of the United States" case, it asserted the supremacy of the federal government over state governments. A Maryland law required federally chartered banks to use only a special paper to print money, which amounted to a tax. The law was specifically designed to tax the Second Bank of the United States. James McCulloch, cashier of the Bank's Baltimore branch, refused to use the paper, claiming that states could not tax the national government. The Court declared the Maryland law unconstitutional, asserting that "...the power to tax implies the power to destroy."
Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)
This decision involved a careful examination of the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. Aaron Ogden's exclusive state-issued ferry license gave him the right to operate steamboats to and from New York on the Hudson River. He claimed that Thomas Gibbon's federal "coasting license" did not include "landing rights" in New York City. Hence, federal and state regulation of commerce conflicted. The Court ruled against Ogden, proclaiming that while a state could regulate trade within its borders, when part of a river's banks were shared with another state (here, New Jersey), the national government held jurisdiction. The ruling therefore strengthened the power of the United States to monitor any interstate business relationship. Federal regulation of television, pipelines, and banking are all based on this decision.
Worcester v. Georgia (1832)
This case involved Samuel Worcester, a missionary who lived in Cherokee territory without obtaining licenses required by the Georgia government. The Court ruled that the Cherokee tribe was a nation under the protection of the United States and was therefore free from the jurisdiction of the state of Georgia. President Andrew Jackson chose not to enforce the decision. (Jackson also refused to back a related Court ruling concerning Corn Tassel, a Cherokee convicted by Georgia of murder committed within Cherokee land. The Court determined that Corn Tassel should not have been prosecuted in the state court, but he was hanged nevertheless.) The decision came on the heels of Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), a case which Marshall had declined because the Cherokees were "not a foreign state, in the sense of the Constitution" and therefore could not sue in any United States court.
ROGER B. TANEY
United States v. Schooner Amistad (1841)
In 1839, 53 slaves being transported aboard the Amistad out of Havana broke free and seized the vessel, killing two crew members in the melee. When the Amistad was later intercepted by an American patrol ship, the Africans were imprisoned in Connecticut, pending disposition of the federal government. A preliminary hearing determined the Africans were to be held on charges of piracy and murder. Upon learning of the Africans' plight, a circle of northern abolitionists organized a determined campaign to secure the Africans' freedom. The case was a judicial and political octopus at a time when sectional tensions were high. Eventually reaching the Supreme Court, former President John Quincy Adams represented the Africans. By an 8-1 majority, the Court declared the Africans free on the ground that they had never been lawful slaves since they were kidnapped in Africa and illegally transported to Cuba. Hence, their revolt was viewed as an act of self-defense. In essence, the ruling established that the United States should treat as free men any slaves who escaped illegal bondage. Although the case was one of the most publicized trials of the entire pre-Civil War period, it did not set a major precedent, nor did it alter the status of slavery in America. It did, however, elevate the American consciousness regarding slavery to an all-time high. Four of the Court justices who rendered the decision would still be sitting on the bench in 1857, when the infamous Dred Scott case was considered. The 1997 movie Amistad chronicles the entire incident.
Scott v. Sandford (1857)
For the first time since Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court declared a law of Congress unconstitutional. Dred Scott was the slave of Dr. John Emerson, an army surgeon, who took Scott from the slave state of Missouri into Illinois, a free state, and then Wisconsin, a territory declared free under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Scott eventually returned to Missouri, and after his master died, sued for freedom on the basis that residency in free areas had made him free. (Scott's emancipation was not really an issue because his master's widow married an abolitionist, and Scott was set to be freed regardless.) The 7-2 Supreme Court decision first declared that a slave was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue in a federal court. Further, the Court upheld property rights (of the Fifth Amendment) over human rights by holding that a slave could not become a free man just because he had traveled to "free soil" states with his master. "Free soil" federal laws and the Missouri Compromise line (even though it had been repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854) were deemed unconstitutional because they deprived a slave owner of the right to his "property" without just compensation. This very narrow reading of the Constitution, a landmark case of the Court, was most clearly stated by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a states' rights advocate. A nation on the brink of division was further fragmented by this decision.
SALMON P. CHASE
MORRISON R. WAITE
Munn v. Illinois (1877)
The Supreme Court upheld Illinois laws regulating grain elevator and railroad rates. The decision stated that any business serving the public interest was subject to state control. Having maximum rates established did not represent being deprived of property without due process of law.
Civil Rights Cases (1883)
The Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which barred segregation in public facilities. The Court stated that while the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed the civil rights of blacks against invasion by the states, individuals could act differently. Therefore, a privately-owned establishment, such as a restaurant, hotel, or theater, could choose to deny service to blacks. This situation was not reversed until the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
MELVILLE W. FULLER
United States v. E. C. Knight Company (1895)
This decision temporarily took the teeth out of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The American Sugar Refining Company purchased the E. C. Knight Company and other sugar refineries until it controlled 98 percent of the industry. The government challenged the action in accordance with the Sherman Act. The Supreme Court ruled that the company was engaged in manufacturing, whereas the Sherman Act outlawed restraint of trade. Hence, the decision made a distinction between production and commercial monopolies. Within a few years, however, the court reinterpreted the law to include both forms of monopoly.
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
This case specifically upheld a Louisiana law which required segregated seating aboard public railroads. Herman Plessy argued that his right to "equal protection of the laws" under the Fourteenth Amendment was violated. The Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public accommodations such as railroads (and, by implication, public schools) was legal so long as equal facilities were provided for all races. In doing so, the Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as "not intended to give Negroes social equality but only political and civil equality...." This standard of "separate but equal" would be overturned by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.
Lochner v. New York (1905)
The Supreme Court declared New York's ten-hour act for bakers unconstitutional. The ruling was based on the Fourteenth Amendment which forbade states to "deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law." The interpretation was that the state's law deprived bakers of the liberty of working the number of hours they wished.
Muller v. Oregon (1908)
The Supreme Court upheld an Oregon law limiting women laundry workers to a ten-hour day. The attorney who presented the case for Oregon was Louis Brandeis, himself later appointed to the Supreme Court by President Woodrow Wilson. The case was significant because of the use of the Brandeis brief technique; that is, Brandeis used physiological, sociological, and economic data as well as legal evidence to argue his case. A similar Brandies brief in Bunting v. Oregon (1917) persuaded the Court to uphold a ten-hour workday for men.
EDWARD D. WHITE
Insular Cases (1901-22)
A series of Supreme Court decisions which defined the constitutional status of American colonies. The general trend was that the Constitution did not necessarily follow the flag, leaving Congress free to govern occupied areas as it pleased. The Court identified two types of possessions. "Incorporated" coloniesthose destined for statehoodwere to be afforded constitutional guarantees. However, most possessions, referred to as "unincorporated," could be administered without regard to the Constitution.
Schenck v. United States (1919)
This decision upheld the constitutionality of the 1917 Espionage Act which established fines and jail sentences for persons found guilty of aiding the enemy or obstructing recruitment efforts during World War I. The law also authorized the postmaster general to ban treasonable or seditious material from the mail.
WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT
CHARLES EVANS HUGHES
HARLAN F. STONE
Korematsu v. United States (1944)
Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor prompted immediate phobic suspicion of the loyalty of some 120,000 persons of Japanese descent living in states bordering the Pacific Ocean. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order No. 9066 authorized the military to "prescribe military areas...from which any or all persons may be excluded." Congress took an additional step, passing legislation providing for the relocation of all persons excluded from any such military areas. When the Pacific Coast was identified as Military Area No. 1, orders were issued to rid the area of all persons of Japanese descent. Toyosaburo Korematsu, a native-born American citizen, refused to leave his home near San Francisco. He was arrested and charged with failure to report for relocation, and was found guilty in federal district court. Korematsu's appeal to the Supreme Court failed. The Court noted that "pressing public necessity [World War II] may sometimes justify the existence of restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group...." No other descendents of specific races were interned during the war. Years later, the United States will issue a formal apology for the action.
FRED F. VINSON
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)
Probably no Supreme Court decision in the twentieth century so deeply stirred and changed life in the United States as this. A ten-year-old Topeka, Kansas, girl was not permitted to attend her neighborhood school because she was black. The Court heard arguments about whether segregation itself was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment and found that it was, commenting that "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place....Segregation is a denial of the equal protection of the laws." The ruling overturned the long-standing 1896 decision of Plessy v. Ferguson.
Sheppard v. Maxwell (1966)
Dr. Samuel Sheppard was convicted of murdering his wife in a trial widely covered by the national news media. Sheppard appealed his conviction, claiming the pretrial publicity made it impossible for him to receive a fair trial. The Supreme Court rejected arguments about "press freedom," overturned his conviction, and ordered a new trial. As a result of this case, some judges have issued "gag" orders limiting pretrial publicity. The case is somewhat famous because it served as the basis for both a television series and a movie, both entitled The Fugitive.
Tinker v. Des Moines Public Schools (1969)
A group of Des Moines, Iowa, students planned to wear black armbands to school as an expression of protest to American involvement in Vietnam. School officials learned of the plan and created policy prohibiting the action. Students in violation were to be suspended. The Tinker siblings chose to ignore the warning and appeared in school with armbands. Upon suspension, the Tinkers and several other students, acting through their parents, went to court, asking for an injunction preventing the schools from acting against the students. Their request denied, they approached the Supreme Court, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The Court agreed with the Tinkers, upholding students' First Amendment rights, commenting that students do not abandon their civil rights "at the school-house gate..." and that wearing black armbands was a "...silent, passive expression of opinion...." Schools would need to show evidence of the possibility of "substantial disruption" before free speech could be limited in the school environment.
WARREN E. BURGER
Roe v. Wade (1973)
A Texas woman challenged a state law forbidding the artificial termination of a pregnancy, claiming that she "had a fundamental right to privacy." In this case, the Supreme Court upheld a woman's right to choose, noting that the State's "important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life" became "compelling" at the end of the first trimester, but that before then "...the attending physician, in consultation with his patient, is free to determine, without regulation by the State, that...the patient's pregnancy should be terminated." The decision struck down State regulation of abortion in the first three months of pregnancy. The 1989 case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services narrowed the protection of this ruling.
United States v. Nixon (1974)
As the Watergate incident steadily unfolded, the Senate investigating committee learned that a White House taping system had routinely recorded all of President Richard M. Nixon's conversations within the Oval Office. The tapes were subpoenaed, but Nixon refused to surrender them, citing executive privilege. Eventually, he did release nine of the tapes, but kept many others. Demand for the tapes was finally turned over to the Supreme Court. The Court overruled the President and ordered him to provide the tapes, thereby limiting executive privilege. The President's "generalized interest in confidentiality" was subordinate to "the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice."
University of California v. Bakke (1978)
In 1974, Allan Bakke applied for admission to the Medical School of the University of California at Davis. He was rejected because the school's admissions policy set aside 16 of 100 places in each year's entering class for "disadvantaged" applicants. Such policy was purposely designed to attract ethnic minority students. When Bakke discovered that several applicants with lower entrance exam scores and scholastic averages had been admitted ahead of him, he sought legal recourse. One California court determined the school's admission policy violated equal protection guarantees, but also that Bakke failed to prove he would have been admitted without the policy. On appeal, the California Supreme Court also found the school's policy unjust, and further, it ordered Bakke's admission. The Regents of the University of California then carried the case to the United States Supreme Court. The Court ruled narrowly, providing an admission for Bakke. The Court stopped short, however, in overturning the policy of "affirmative action," preferring instead to consider discrimination questions on a case-by-case basis.
WILLIAM H. REHNQUIST
South Dakota v. Dole (1986)
In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which preempted the states' power to determine their own minimum ages to purchase and consume alcohol. It did so by providing that any state which did not set 21 as the legal drinking age would automatically lose millions of dollars in federal highway funds. Most of the 27 states targeted by the law complied, but South Dakota chose instead to sue Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole on the ground that the act violated the Twenty-first Amendment. The Supreme Court upheld the right of the national government to limit highway funds to states that did not qualify under rules of "entitlement." In subsequent years, similar strings have been attached to federal assistance, including mandating maximum speed limits on interstate highways.