The Supreme Court of the United States has handed down more than 30,000 decisions in its 230-year history. The records of these are kept in close to 600 bound volumes of United States Reports housed in the Library of Congress. Many of these decisions altered the course of American history and reshaped the nature of our national society and culture. These momentous changes were not the result of new laws or new enforcement of those laws, as those are the duties of the other two branches of government. The high court’s duty is to interpret the law and redirect the country to its own Constitutional principles.
The 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision resolved a dispute over Cabinet appointments between outgoing President John Adams and incoming President Thomas Jefferson. When Congress attempted to resolve the argument by passing a new law, the John Marshall Court declared the law unconstitutional and affirmed the independence of the Judicial Branch of the government. In the 1819 McCulloch v. Maryland decision, a state’s attempt to restrict the Bank of the United States was struck down as an interference into the balance of power between federal and state governments.
The civil rights of African Americans became a major legal issue in the years leading up to and following the American Civil War. In the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford case, slave-owning Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that slaves were property and “Negroes” could not be citizens of the United States. His decision enraged the abolitionist movement and was a major factor leading to the outbreak of hostilities between North and South in 1861.
The so-called “Reconstruction” Amendments added to the Constitution after Union victory in the war ended slavery and overrode the Dred Scott decision by recognizing the citizenship of all persons born in the U.S. and granting the right to vote regardless of race. The war did not resolve issues of racial discrimination, however, and the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision legalized segregation throughout the nation, particularly in the South. African Americans would have to take their struggle for freedom and justice to the courts and the streets for the next fifty years.
Other decisions of the late 19th century limited the power of monopoly and upheld the rights of women in the workplace. With the outbreak of World War II, however, the issue of racial discrimination reappeared, this time against Americans of Japanese ancestry who were confined in wartime “Relocation Centers” that amounted to concentration camps. The Korematsu v. United States decision of 1944 upheld the government’s right to suspend civil rights in time of war, much as the Schenck v. United States decision of 1919 had done with the issue of freedom of speech during the First World War. Japanese Americans had to wait another forty years to receive an official apology from the government.
Americans of all backgrounds, including Japanese Americans, had helped win Allied victory over fascism in World War II and expected commensurate treatment when they returned home. An important legal victory was achieved in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of the Earl Warren Court in 1954, which ordered the desegregation of public schools. Brown also overturned the legalized segregation of the Plessy decision and helped to inspire the civil rights campaigns led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1965 Congress had outlawed discrimination in public life and abolished poll taxes with the 24th Amendment.
Other civil rights issues related to due process came to the Warren Court’s attention. Hernandez v. Texas (1954) ruled that Mexican Americans had legal protection against discrimination under the 14th Amendment. Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) asserted a defendant’s right to an attorney, New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) defended freedom of speech, and Miranda v. Arizona (1966) required law enforcement officers to inform suspects of their rights. Loving v. Virginia (1967) upheld the rights of interracial couples.
More marginalized groups of Americans joined the civil rights struggle in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Mexican Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ Americans, and women. The Warren Burger Court defended a woman’s right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973), a decision that continues to provoke debate between “pro-choice” groups defending the civil rights of the mother and “pro-life” groups voicing support for the unborn child. The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision of 1978 allowed universities to consider race as a factor in admissions but prohibited discriminatory racial quotas.
The political turmoil of the Vietnam War and Watergate led to the United States v. Nixon decision of 1974, which prohibited the President of the United States from withholding evidence in a criminal investigation. The disputed Presidential election of 2000 was resolved in the Bush v. Gore decision which ended the counting in Florida and guaranteed a Republican victory. This was the only time in American history when the Judicial Branch became directly involved in a Presidential election.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans and their allies have won several important victories before the 21st century Supreme Court. The 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision struck down offensive “sodomy” laws that intruded on private life, United States v. Windsor (2013) protected the federal benefits of same-sex couples, and the Obergefell v. Hodges decision of 2015 finally abolished state restrictions on same-sex marriage across the country. The struggle for LGBTQ civil rights continues as the issue of “gender-neutral” identification and accommodation attracts more public debate.
Other issues brought before the Court over the decades have included prayer in public schools, treatment of the American flag, polygamy, use of public lands, patents and copyrights, and the content of student newspapers. The Supreme Court has been and will continue to be an active participant in the unfolding drama of American history. The Constitution’s general guidelines will always remain open to interpretation in specific circumstances. It is the ongoing task of the Judicial Branch to interpret the law to the best of its ability and strive for justice in American society.
- Which historic decision of the U.S. Supreme Court has most impacted your life? Explain.
- Many Supreme Court decisions have sparked intense debate in Congress and national elections. Do you think the Supreme Court has ruled fairly in most of its decisions? Why or why not?
- What legal issues in American life remain unresolved? What role should the Supreme Court play in resolving them?
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