The following lesson will cover a set of landmark Supreme Court decisions that serve to protect the rights of citizens given to us through our Constitution's amendments. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.
Landmark Cases Based on Amendments
Conflict is often a fact of life. People are not always going to agree on things, and fortunately for society's most important conflicts, we have the Supreme Court to settle matters. The Supreme Court bases all of its decisions on the Constitution. In this lesson, we will discuss how the Supreme Court has used the amendments in the Constitution for the basis of its decisions.
Many of the amendments that the Supreme Court uses as a basis for its decisions include a very special set of amendments known as the Bill of Rights, or the first ten amendments. These amendments were particularly added to the Constitution as rights specifically granted to citizens of the United States as a form of protection against any unlawful governmental actions. We will, however, also cover cases that involve other amendments. The cases we will discuss include: United States v. Nixon, New York Times v. United States, Griswold v. Connecticut, Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Citizens United v. FEC.
United States v. Nixon
Our first case may seem like it deals with an article of the Constitution as it involves the executive branch; however, the Supreme Court would rule that the case had more to do with the right to a fair trial. In Nixon v. United States, the Supreme Court had to determine whether or not the President could deny being served a subpoena. President Nixon, at the time, was accused of conspiring with others to illegally wiretap conversations and attempting to steal secret documents that may have affected his re-election campaign for president.
The prosecutor assigned to the case had subpoenaed the President's recordings and phone conversations that basically implicated him in this crime; however, Nixon's lawyer claimed that because of the President's executive privilege, the tapes could not be subpoenaed. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court ruled that citizens have the right under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to face their accusers and have fair and speedy trials regardless if that person happened to be the President. Even though the President is not just any other citizen, the power of executive privilege had to be balanced with individual interest citizens have under the Bill of Rights.
New York Times v. United States
The case of the New York Times v. United States is actually related to the previous case we talked about, United States v. Nixon, only this time instead of denying a subpoena, the Nixon administration attempted to prevent the New York Times from publishing classified information regarding the Vietnam War. President Nixon argued that keeping the materials private was essential to protect national security. The New York Times argued, however, that they should be allowed to publish the material under the First Amendment's right to freedom of the press. The Supreme Court agreed and reasoned that the information would not have caused an inevitable, direct, and immediate threat to the safety of American forces.
Griswold v. Connecticut
The right to privacy implicit in the Fourth Amendment is one of the most sacredly held rights that Americans enjoy from our constitutional amendments. In 1965, the Supreme Court was faced with answering whether or not there was a constitutional right to privacy and, if so, where in the Constitution does it fall? The backdrop of this case involved a Connecticut law that banned the use of contraception, called the Comstock law. The main issue centered on the question of whether or not a person had a right to privacy regarding one's intimate practices, like the use of contraception. The Supreme Court ruled that yes there is a constitutional right to privacy for citizens because of the creation of a 'zone' of constitutional rights to privacy that a collection of amendments provides as a whole.
Brown v. Board of Education
Brown v. Board of Education is the first case we will discuss that places sole focus on preserving the rights given to us in the Constitution's amendments outside of the Bill of Rights. Brown v. Board of Education was a monumental decision that came down during a time when the battle for civil rights was in full swing.
This case actually overturned a previous Supreme Court decision from the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, where the Supreme Court established the doctrine of 'separate but equal' in allowing institutions to split their public services for white and black Americans. For example, a person might find a public restroom that had two signs above the entrance that indicated one room was for white men and the other was for black men. Brown v. Board of Education, however, stated that the doctrine of 'separate but equal' was inherently unequal because it violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court explained that stigmatization and separation can and does have real consequences and, in essence, still treats people as second-class citizens and therefore could not be allowed.
Roe v. Wade
Another case regarding citizens' rights to privacy was related to a woman's reproductive rights. The Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade had to decide whether or not the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause also protected a woman's right to privacy, to the degree that having an abortion is a constitutional right. The Supreme Court ruled that yes, in fact, the Constitution does recognize a right to privacy, but these rights as related to abortion are strongest during the first trimester of pregnancy. More specifically, the Court ruled that a woman's right to privacy in the first trimester supersedes the state's legitimate interest in preserving human life or any other governmental interest, but the state's interest supersedes the woman's right to privacy in later trimesters.
Citizens United v. FEC
While the Roe v. Wade case argued over reproductive issues and the issue of personhood of a fetus, the case of Citizens United v. the FEC argued over the issue of personhood, not of a fetus, but that of corporations. The background of the case involved whether or not corporate funding for elections was protected under the First Amendment's right to free speech. And, in fact, the Supreme Court, in a split decision, determined that yes, political contributions are a form of free speech and that corporations, like individual citizens, should be afforded the same right.
Whew! We made it through six cases! That sure was a lot of information, so let's review. The first case we started with was the case of the United States v. Nixon, which stated that executive privilege does not always supersede an individual citizen's rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Our last five cases all concerned a discussion on protections that other amendments both inside and outside of the Bill of Rights provide for people and included other cases like the case of New York Times v. United States, which upheld the First Amendment right to freedom of the press.
There were also two cases that concerned a citizen's right to privacy in the cases of Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade. We also covered cases that used other amendments outside the first ten as the basis for their decisions, including Brown v. Board of Education, which said that the doctrine of 'separate but equal' was inherently unequal under the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. Lastly, the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC also said that the right to free speech not only was for individual citizens but also extended to corporations.
Once you are finished, you should be able to identify and discuss some of the key Supreme Court cases that focused on protecting citizens' rights provided for in the U.S. Constitution.