The Supreme Court began hearing appeals in 1789. In the 233 years since its inception, the highest court of appeals in the land has made dozens of decisions about cases that changed the fabric of our society. The court heard cases affecting our freedoms, civil rights, the legal industry, taxation, social divisions, freedom of choice, gender, race, social class, and more. They ruled on cases that left profound effects on our legal system, setting powerful and lasting precedents that help ensure our freedom and rights are protected under the letter of the law. Here are twenty of the most impactful Supreme Court rulings in history that helped define the United States as a nation.
20. Miranda v. Arizona
The National Law Review reports that The Miranda v. Arizona case of 1966 was filed as an appeal by Ernesto Miranda, convicted of rape and kidnapping in a lower court. He admitted to the crimes and signed a statement of confession. He appealed his conviction claiming that police did not inform him of his right to a lawyer before his interrogation. The case was heard in the Arizona Supreme Court to determine if his rights were violated. In a landmark ruling, the court determined that police failure to read Miranda his rights violated his civil rights. It set a powerful impact on the legal system that made it possible for criminal convictions to be overturned, and for mistrials to dismiss charges against people if Miranda rights are not read during the arrest, before interrogation. Lack of information about his rights was ruled a violation of Mr. Miranda’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Interrogations must be administered concerning the constitutional rights of each suspect upheld. Miranda’s conviction was overturned because the police violated his civil rights and the infarction they obtained in the statement was not admissible as evidence because of the violations. This is why all police are required to read Miranda rights that list each right to the suspects including the right to remain silent, the right to give up the choice to remain silent, to have an attorney present during questioning, and to have counsel appointed if they can not afford the costs of representation.
19. Mapp v. Ohio
Dollree Mapp was suspected ofo hiding a suspected bomber in her home in Cleveland, Ohio. Police entered her home forcefully without a search warrant on May 23, 1957. They found no suspect but noticed that her home contained books and images that violated codes established by Ohio law. When Mapp’s lawyer arrived at her home to represent her, she was denied access to her client. The police handcuffed Mapp and made her stay in a bedroom. After demands for a warrant were made she tried to retrieve the warrant but was accused of resisting the officers. They arrested her for the images in her home and a court convicted her. The trial ended with no explanation for why there was no warrant. She was convicted of the charges. She appealed to the Supreme Court claiming her Fourth Amendment rights were violated due to the search and seizure of items without a warrant. The court ruled in Mapp’s favor in 1961. It was a landmark case that determined that law enforcement may not use evidence unconstitutionally. The ruling created a code of conduct for law enforcement as significant as the Miranda ruling.
18. Gideon v. Wainwright
Clarence Gideon was in and out of trouble from an early age. He committed nonviolent crimes and spent most of his life in and out of jail. He was known in the Florida court system for frequent crimes. He committed a breaking crime with the intent to commit a misdemeanor. He was summoned to appear to face charges in the case in a Florida court. Gideon asked for a court-appointed attorney because he could not afford one. The court denied his request because of a law that states the court is not required to appoint counsel for defendants charged with felony crimes. Gideon represented himself at the trial. The crime was a misdemeanor but considered a felony in Florida. He was tried in court, convicted, and sentenced to serve five years in prison. He filed a petition under a writ of habeas corpus to the Florida Supreme Court, claiming the refusal of counsel violated his constitutional rights. The Florida Supreme Court denied the petition. He then took it to the highest court in the land, filing with the US Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gideon, unanimously agreeing that any individual charged with a felony who could not afford legal counsel must have the right to free legal counsel under the Sixth Amendment. This 1963 ruling changed the rules for the judicial system in Florida and all other states.
17. Marbury v. Madison
Marbury v. Madison is a landmark case that set a precedent when the Supreme Court determined a law established by Congress as unconstitutional. The 1803 ruling involved the principle of Judicial Rule and the authority of the federal judicial system to declare executive and legislative acts as unconstitutional. President John Adams appointed several justices. Willian Marbury was among them. James Madison was introduced as Secretary of State and denied the appointments of the justices. Marbury and the other justices sued. It was an appeal to regain their appointed positions. The Supreme Court ruled against them unanimously, establishing the principle of Judicial Review. The court ruled that Madison’s refusal was illegal and that the law Marbury chose to sue under was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court established its power of judicial review to decide if executive action or law is unconstitutional.
16. Dred Scott v. Sandford
Dred Scott and Harriet Scott were slaves who filed lawsuits to gain their freedom in a case that would set a powerful precedent for anti-slavery movements in the United States. The lawsuits were filed against Irene Emerson. It claimed wrongful enslavement. The suit cited Missouri statutes claiming any person taken to a free territory is deemed free and may not be enslaved again upon their return to a slave state. Dred and Harriet lived in Wisconsin and Illinois, both free territories, and were deemed free by law. The lawsuit was filed in April 1846. The court ruled against them in June 1847. The Scott’s continued pursuit of legal relief from slavery in an 1850 trial that granted their rightful freedom. Emerson appealed the cases for Dred and Harriet in the Missouri Supreme Court. Judges reversed the decision of the lower court. The Scotts were once again enslaved. The legal battle ensured for more than ten years, gaining public attention and bringing in abolitionists, high-status lawyers, and politicians. When Emerson remarried a US congressman who was an abolitionist, he urged her to sell the Scotts to their original owner Taylor Blow. He freed them on May 26, 1857. This is one of the most impactful cases in the anti-slavery movements that sparked the public to consider such legal cases. It was an impactful case that served as a forerunner to the US Civil War.
15. McCulloch v. Maryland
Constitutional Facts explains that the McCulloch v. Maryland case of 1819 had a tremendous impact on the right of Congress to pass laws for US government business. the Supreme Court upheld Congress’ authority to create a national bank and to pass laws that are deemed necessary and proper for conducting the business of the United States government. Chief Justice Marshall invoked the saying “Let the end be legitimate and all means consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution are constitutional.”
14. Gibbons v. Ogden
Congress and New York established laws to regulate the steamboat industry. In 1824, Gibbons had a federal permit for a steamboat business, and Ogden had a state permit to run a business on the same waters, were at odds. The 1824 decision heard the case describing the conflicting laws and ruled that states may not interfere with Congress’s regulation of commerce. Federal laws supersede state laws which must yield to Congressional constitutional acts. The court ruled in Gibbon’s favor. It set the precedent that the federal government has the authority for determining interstate commerce and regulating business transactions. The decision affects buying, selling, and regulation of navigation of waters and territories.
13. Charles River Bridge
The Charles River Bridge, built by Harvard College in 1785 with prominent Bostonians, was granted a legal charter by the state of Massachusetts. The Warren Bridge Company was granted a charter by the legislature in 1828. They were permitted to build a badly needed new bridge free of tools after covering construction costs. The Charles River Bridge contributors feared the loss of stock value, attempting to block the construction of the Warren Bridge, creating a conflict between the rights of one community against the other. The court determined that the rights of property must be guarded. Government has the responsibility to promote the prosperity and happiness of the community, which also has rights. The Supreme Court’s 1937 decision ruled that the general welfare of the other community would be enhanced with the construction of the second bridge and that Charles River did not have a monopoly.
12. Brown v. Board of Education
Brown v. Board of Education addresses the 1868 Equal Protection Clause, also known as the 14th Amendment. It ensures states govern impartially and not based on discrimination against an individual. The government must protect everyone’s rights under similar circumstances. Public schools were segregated by race in the early 1950s. The NAACP Legal Defence and Education fund with Thurgood Marshall argued that school segregation is unconstitutional. They shared concerns about black students’ mental health resulting from segregation. The 1954 ruling determined that racially segregated public schools are unconstitutional and further that they violated the Fourteenth Amendment. They set a powerful precedent that overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of separate but equal. It set a precedent that became a forerunner of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, making racial equality a federal law.
11. Schenck v. the United States
Schenck v. the United States is a case presented and ruled on in 1919. It deals with national security and speech that presents a clear and present danger. Free speech is protected in the US under the First Amendment to the Constitution, but when does it put the nation at risk? That is the question addressed in this case. In 1918, Charles Schenck, general secretary of the Socialist party got arrested for distributing literature to dissuade young men from armed forces enlistment. He opposed the enlistment and the draft based on the Thirteenth Amendment prohibiting involuntary servitude and slavery. He was convicted of speech presenting a clear and present danger to the nation. He appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court. Oliver Wendell Holmes, justice at the time, stated that the character of each act depends on the circumstances. The court determined that distributing the literature during wartime presented a clear and present danger to US security while the distribution of the literature during peacetime would not. Because he made the distributions during a time of war, Schenck was in violation and lost the case. This case set a precedent for weighing the circumstances under which free speech and its content is exercised.
10. Near v. Minnesota
The Near v. Minnesota case of 1931 involved the liberty of the press. The First Amendment guaranteed free press until Near v. Minnesota. When Minnesota closed JM Near’s Saturday press for allegations of publishing antisemitic and racist remarks, it set a precedent for intervention in a free press. Near appealed the state decision to the Supreme Court. The justices ruled that the state could not engage in prior restraint except for rare cases. States cannot prevent an individual from expressing a thought or publishing those thoughts.
9. Tinker v. Des Moines
The American Bar Association explains that Tinker v. Des Moines is a case that set a precedent for challenges to school-based First Amendment rights. When public schools barred students from wearing black armbands to protest the war, their authority was challenged and taken to the Supreme Court. After hearing the facts surrounding the case, in 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that students do not lose their constitutional rights to freedom of speech when entering the school property. The court ruled that schools can not prohibit free speech so long as the speech does not disrupt the educational process. The school violated the student’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
8. Roe v. Wade
Roe v. Wade is one of the most controversial and famous Supreme Court cases involving abortion rights. Jane Roe (Norma MCorvery_ filed a class action against the state of Texas. She was pregnant and challenged the law of Dallas County prohibiting her from terminating her pregnancy. The Supreme Court determined that states may only restrict abortions near the end of a pregnancy. The case impacted over 43 states supporting a woman’s right to abortion if she chooses. The state of Texas recently outlawed abortion and made complicit in arranging abortion in Texas illegal, which overturned Roe v. Wade in the state until it is challenged again. The ongoing controversy continues among the states and the federal government as Supreme Court seats shift with differing political views coming and going. Roe v. Wade determined that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to privacy, and laws that severely restrict or deny women’s access to abortion are unconstitutional.
7. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke
This 1978 case asked if institutions of higher learning may use race as a factor when determining admissions. The Supreme Court determined that fixed quotas for racial distribution may not be used to make admissions decisions. Doing so is unconstitutional, however, achieving diversity on college campuses is permitted. The Court supports university rights to use race as a part of the admissions processes barring fixed quotas to ensure student body diversity. The decision led to numerous other cases. The court supported affirmative action programs and continued to clarify the conditions under which race may be included as a factor in admissions decisions.
6. Worcester v. Georgia
Business Insider reports that the Worcester v. Georgia case of 1832 involved the passage of state laws prohibiting all but native Americans from living on Native American Land. Missionary Samuel Worcester lived on Native American land. When he refused to apply for a license, he was arrested and removed. He appealed the conviction and alleged his removal violated his constitutional rights because the state of Georgia had no jurisdiction over tribal lands. The Supreme Court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was a sovereign community. The Georgia law got struck down. It set a precedent for relations with sovereign Native American nations, the US government, and federal processes.
5. Munn v. Illinois
Illinois passed legislation in 1871, establishing the maximum rate for private companies, restricting what they were allowed to charge for transporting and storing agricultural goods. The rule Munn, who owned a grain warehouse, challenged the regulation. The courts convicted him of charging the public too much, violating the law. He appealed the conviction claiming it was unconstitutional to remove the property. The Supreme Court ruled that the law was constitutional. It upheld the state’s right to regulate private industries affecting the public. Munn’s storage facilities impacted the public. They were thus subject to state regulations. The ruling set precedent for states to regulate business within their borders.
4. Plessy v. Ferguson
In 1896 the Supreme Court ruled the 14th Amendment, was not violated by maintaining separate but equal accommodations for whites and blacks. Homer Plessy sat in a train car reserved for white passengers in the late 1800s in Louisiana. Plessy was a black man who refused to move and got arrested for violating the Separate Car Act. He argued that the act violated his rights under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The ruling set the precedent for separate but equal laws for the next 60 years to come in cases until later challenges resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
3. Lochner v. New York
New York passed labor law in 1897 that limited the number of hours bakers could work in a week to 60 hours. Bavarian baker Joseph Lochner received two fines for working his employees over 60 hours a week. He claimed that the law was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court heard the case and determined that the law interfered with the contract established with its employees and that the law passed by New York was unconstitutional. The ruling set a precedent for rights to organize, child safety laws, and minimum wage laws, supporting their dismissal in numerous cases for the next thirty years until reversals allowed for improved labor laws.
2. Obergefell v. Hodges
The 2015 ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges involved the rights of persons engaged in same-sex marriages. James Oergefell and John Arthur were married in Maryland. They lived in Ohio, where same-sex marriages were not allowed on death certificates. Arther became ill and desired to have Obergefell listed on his death certificate. Obergefell, Arthur, and three couples from other states sued their states for a breach of the Equal Protection Clause listed in the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that every state in the United States must legally recognize same-sex marriage. It changed the legal rules for the thirteen states banning gay marriage before the decision. It was a win for supporters of same-sex marriage rights.
1. Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency
In 1999, Massachusetts with eleven other states and various environmental organizations submitted a petition for the EPA to begin regulation of carbon dioxide from motor vehicles. When the EPA claimed it did not have the legal authority to regulate the emissions, it denied the petition. The case was taken to the Supreme Court, where the court ruled that the EPA had legal authorization to regulate automobile emissions. The 2007 ruling gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority and obligation to regulate vehicle carbon emissions under sweeping language acknowledging climate change science, setting one of the most impactful Supreme Court decisions on the regulation of pollutants. It impacted the auto industry and set more stringent regulations for controlling carbon emissions. It encouraged the move from petroleum-based engines to electric.