Landmark Supreme Court Cases: Overview & Effects

Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and is currently working on his PhD in Higher Education Administration.

As one of the three branches of the federal government, the Supreme Court has significant power. In this lesson, we'll introduce and briefly review some of the landmark cases the Court has heard in its 225+ year history.

The Supreme Court

Consisting of nine presidential-appointed and Senate-confirmed judges, the Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Although it actually hears fewer than 2% of the cases submitted for its consideration (around 100-150 out of 10,000 requests), the cases it does decide are of the utmost importance.

It's a challenge to pick the most important cases of the last 225 years because there are so many--if the court hears around 100 cases each year, and it's been around for 225 years, that adds up to more than 20,000 cases! We can't possibly cover all of them, so we've narrowed the field to eight. Read on for a rapid-fire, chronological overview of these landmark cases that have had lasting impact on U.S. law and government procedures.

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Some of the early cases heard by the Supreme Court are the most important, because they set precedent for future courts and cases, which means that courts use these early cases as models or examples when similar cases are presented today. The background of this case involved an issue concerning the appointment of Marbury as a Justice of the Peace, but the real impact of the case is in the finding of the Court that it had the power to judge the constitutionality of all laws created by Congress.

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)

Gibbons v. Ogden involved two steamboat operators who had been given permits-- one by the federal government and one by the state government--to operate on the same waters. The Court decided that, according to the Constitution, in any conflict between state and federal laws, federal laws have precedence over state laws.

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) & Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

The Dred Scott and Plessy cases were unfortunate rulings, but they are important because they demonstrate the impact the current social environment can have on laws and cases. Both of these cases involved the rights of slaves and minorities. In Dred Scott v. Sandford, Dred Scott, a slave who had moved with his master to a free state, sued for his freedom. The Court held, however, that slaves were not U.S. citizens, but rather, were the property of their masters.

The Dred Scott decision was delivered before the Civil War, and 40 years later, after the Civil War, the Court heard Plessy v. Ferguson. In Louisiana, Plessy--who was 1/8 black--was kicked out of a whites-only railway car. This is the case that determined the philosophy and practice of 'separate but equal' was constitutional.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Thankfully, by the mid-twentieth century, 'separate but equal' was starting to lose favor in the eyes of society and the courts. Brown v. Board of Education overturned the Plessy decision by a unanimous 9-0 vote and clearly stated that 'separate but equal' did not apply to public schools. Although the decision did not completely eliminate the idea of 'separate but equal,' it helped pave the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was a significant step in making racial equality an issue covered by federal law.

Roe v. Wade (1973)

In Roe v. Wade, Jane Roe (a pseudonym) sued the Dallas County District Attorney, Henry Wade, asserting that state laws making abortion illegal violated her constitutional right to privacy. The Court went through the typical process, with the circuit and federal court both finding in favor of Wade, but when the Supreme Court heard the case, it agreed with Roe by a vote of 7-2. This case did more than just make state laws against abortion unconstitutional; it broadened the interpretation of an individual's right to privacy.

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