Landmark Decisions of the Supreme Court

United States Government

The Court bows to the lessons of experience and the force of better reasoning, recognizing that the process of trial and error, so fruitful in the physical sciences, is appropriate also in the judicial function."

Louis D. Brandeis, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Burnet v. Coronado Oil and Gas Co., 1932

Since the U.S. Supreme Court first convened in 1790, it has rendered thousands of opinions on everything from the powers of government to civil rights and freedom of the press. Although many of these decisions are little known and of little interest to the general public, several stand out because of the impact they have had on American history. A few of the most significant cases are summarized here.


Often called the most important decision in the history of the Supreme Court, Marbury v. Madison established the principle of judicial review and the power of the Court to determine the constitutionality of legislative and executive acts.

The case arose from a political dispute in the aftermath of the presidential election of 1800 in which Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, defeated the incumbent president, John Adams, a Federalist. In the closing days of Adams's administration, the Federalist-dominated Congress created a number of judicial positions, including 42 justices of the peace for the District of Columbia. The Senate confirmed the appointments, the president signed them, and it was the responsibility of the secretary of state to seal the commissions and deliver them. In the rush of last-minute activities, the outgoing secretary of state failed to deliver commissions to four justices of the peace, including William Marbury.

The new secretary of state under President Jefferson, James Madison, refused to deliver the commissions because the new administration was angry that the Federalists had tried to entrench members of their party in the judiciary. Marbury brought suit in the Supreme Court to order Madison to deliver his commission.

If the Court sided with Marbury, Madison might still have refused to deliver the commission, and the Court had no way to enforce the order. If the Court ruled against Marbury, it risked surrendering judicial power to the Jeffersonians by allowing them to deny Marbury the office he was legally entitled to. Chief Justice John Marshall resolved this dilemma by ruling that the Supreme Court did not have authority to act in this case. Marshall stated that Section 13 of the Judiciary Act, which gave the Court that power, was unconstitutional because it enlarged the Court's original jurisdiction from the jurisdiction defined by the Constitution itself. By deciding not to decide in this case, the Supreme Court secured its position as the final arbiter of the law.


The first government of the United States under the Articles of Confederation was weak partly because it lacked the power to regulate the new nation's economy, including the flow of interstate commerce. The Constitution gave the U.S. Congress the power "to regulate commerce...among the several states....," but that authority was challenged frequently by states that wanted to retain control over economic matters.

In the early 1800s, the state of New York passed a law that required steamboat operators who traveled between New York and New Jersey to obtain a license from New York. Aaron Ogden possessed such a license; Thomas Gibbons did not. When Ogden learned that Gibbons was competing with him, and without permission from New York, Ogden sued to stop Gibbons.

Gibbons held a federal license to navigate coastal waters under the Coasting Act of 1793, but the New York State courts agreed with Ogden that Gibbons had violated the law because he did not have a New York State license. When Gibbons took his case to the Supreme Court, however, the justices struck down the New York law as unconstitutional because it infringed on the U.S. Congress's power to regulate commerce. "The word 'to regulate' implies, in its nature, full power over the thing to be regulated," the Court said. Therefore, "it excludes, necessarily, the action of all others that would perform the same operation on the same thing."


Dred Scott was a slave whose owner, John Emerson, took him from Missouri, a state that allowed slavery, to Illinois, where slavery was prohibited. Several years later Scott returned to Missouri with Emerson. Scott believed that because he had lived in a free state, he should no longer be considered a slave.

Emerson died in 1843, and three years later Scott sued Emerson's widow for his freedom. Scott won his case in a Missouri court in 1850, but in 1852 the state supreme court reversed the lower court's decision. Meanwhile, Mrs. Emerson remarried, and Scott became the legal property of her brother, John Sanford (misspelled as Sandford in court records). Scott sued Sanford for his freedom in federal court, and the court ruled against Scott in 1854.

When the case went to the Supreme Court, the justices ruled that Scott did not become a free man by virtue of having lived in a free state and that, as a black man, Scott was not a citizen and therefore was not entitled to bring suit in a court of law. The decision was widely criticized, and it contributed to the election of Abraham Lincoln, who opposed slavery, as president in 1860 and hastened the start of the Civil War in 1861. Dred Scott v. Sandford was overturned by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery in 1865, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves in 1868.


While Gibbons v. Ogden established the supremacy of Congress in regulating interstate commerce, NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin extended congressional authority from regulation of commerce itself to regulation of the business practices of industries that engage in interstate commerce.

Jones & Laughlin, one of the nation's largest steel producers, violated the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 by firing 10 employees for engaging in union activities. The act prohibited a variety of unfair labor practices and protected the rights of workers to form unions and to bargain collectively. The company refused to comply with an NLRB order to reinstate the workers. A Circuit Court of Appeals declined to enforce the board's order, and the Supreme Court reviewed the case.

At issue in this case was whether or not Congress had the authority to regulate the "local" activities of companies engaged in interstate commerce that is, activities that take place within one state. Jones & Laughlin maintained that conditions in its factory did not affect interstate commerce and therefore were not under Congress's power to regulate. The Supreme Court disagreed, stating that "the stoppage of those [manufacturing] operations by industrial strife would have a most serious effect upon interstate commerce.... Experience has abundantly demonstrated that the recognition of the right of employees to self-organization and to have representatives of their own choosing for the purpose of collective bargaining is often an essential condition of industrial peace." By upholding the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act, the Supreme Court handed a victory to organized labor and set the stage for more far-reaching regulation of industry by the federal government.


Prior to this historic case, many states and the District of Columbia operated racially segregated school systems under the authority of the Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which allowed segregation if facilities were equal. In 1951 Oliver Brown of Topeka, Kansas, challenged this "separate-but-equal" doctrine when he sued the city school board on behalf of his eight-year-old daughter. Brown wanted his daughter to attend the white school that was five blocks from their home, rather than the black school that was 21 blocks away. Finding the schools substantially equal, a federal court ruled against Brown.

Meanwhile, parents of other black children in South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware filed similar lawsuits. Delaware's court found the black schools to be inferior to white schools and ordered black children to be transferred to white schools, but school officials appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

The Court heard arguments from all these cases at the same time. The briefs filed by the black litigants included data and testimony from psychologists and social scientists who explained why they thought segregation was harmful to black children. In 1954 a unanimous Supreme Court found that " the field of education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," and ruled that segregation in public schools denies black children "the equal protection of the laws guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment."


Two Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s supported the rights of persons accused of committing crimes.

Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested for breaking into a poolroom in Florida in 1961. When he requested a court-appointed lawyer to defend him, the judge denied his plea, saying that state law required appointment of a lawyer only in capital cases cases involving a person's death or calling for the death penalty. Gideon defended himself and was found guilty. While in prison, he spent hours in the library studying law books and handwriting a petition to the Supreme Court to hear his case. The Court decided that Gideon was denied a fair trial and ruled that every state must provide counsel for people accused of crimes who cannot afford to hire their own. When Gideon was retried with the help of a defense attorney, he was acquitted.

Just three years later the Supreme Court decided that the accused should have the right to counsel long before they get to a courtroom. Ernesto Miranda was convicted in a state court in Arizona of kidnapping and rape. His conviction was based on a confession Miranda gave to police officers after two hours of questioning, without being advised that he had the right to have an attorney present. In its ruling the Supreme Court required that police officers, when making arrests, must give what are now known as Miranda warnings that suspects have the right to remain silent, that anything they say may be used against them, that they can have a lawyer present during questioning, and that a lawyer will be provided if they cannot afford one.

Miranda v. Arizona is one of the Supreme Court's best known decisions, as Miranda warnings are dramatized routinely in American movies and television programs. However, in 1999 a federal court of appeals challenged the decision in the case of Dickerson v. United States, in which a convicted bank robber claimed he had not been properly read his rights. In June 2000, the Supreme Court overturned Dickerson in a 7-to-2 ruling that strongly reaffirmed the validity of Miranda.


The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but for years the Supreme Court refused to use the First Amendment to protect the media from libel lawsuits lawsuits based on the publication of false information that damages a person's reputation. The Supreme Court's ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan revolutionized libel law in the United States by deciding that public officials could not sue successfully for libel simply by proving that published information is false. The Court ruled that the complainant also must prove that reporters or editors acted with "actual malice" and published information "with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."

The case arose from a full-page advertisement placed in the New York Times by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to raise money for the legal defense of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been arrested in Alabama in 1960. L.B. Sullivan, a city commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, who was responsible for the police department, claimed that the ad libeled him by falsely describing the actions of the city police force. Sullivan sued the four clergymen who placed the ad and the New York Times, which had not checked the accuracy of the ad.

The advertisement did contain several inaccuracies, and a jury awarded Sullivan $500,000. The Times and the civil rights leaders appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, and the Court ruled unanimously in their favor. The Court decided that libel laws cannot be used "to impose sanctions upon expression critical of the official conduct of public officials," and that requiring critics to guarantee the accuracy of their remarks would lead to self-censorship. The Court found no evidence that the Times or the clergymen had malicious intent in publishing the ad.

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Source: U.S. Department of State