Landmark U.S. Supreme Court Cases

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

In this lesson, we'll explore the concept of a landmark Supreme Court case. We will take on the issue of segregation as an example of how two cases can be very important in shaping the United States throughout history.

What Is a Landmark Case?

In the U.S. legal system, some cases have set an important precedent or legal standard that must be applied to similar cases in the future. We call these landmark cases, because they have dramatically shaped our political system. Some of these cases helped establish a new pattern of behavior for our country, such as creating or eliminating segregation, or restricting free speech, or expanding the power of the federal government for searches without a warrant.

A landmark case is one which is often taught to introduce a concept or highlight an important part of our legal system. When you learn about various areas of the law, you will often be given examples of these types of cases. There are usually many other cases related to it, or which followed that original case, and they are easier to understand when you are familiar with the landmark case.

Sample Landmark Cases

In 1896, the Supreme Court heard the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). This case was concerned with whether or not it was appropriate to arrest a man for refusing to sit in the segregated section of a train reserved for black people. The Court ruled in favor of segregation. Because the Court upheld the state's segregation laws, it led to the legalization of facilities that were separate but equal nationwide. The Court set a precedent that it would not overturn, or declare unconstitutional, laws that prohibit blacks and whites from being in the same place at the same time. This is an example of a landmark case, which will help you to better understand the historical context of the United States under segregation, as well as provide background as to why the Civil Rights Movement arose in the 1960s.

For the next 50 years after Plessy, the United States experienced the consequences of this landmark case. There were many states which chose to continue or to expand segregation, with the alleged claim that separate bathrooms, drinking fountains, restaurant sections, bus seats, and so on, were both fair and equal. In these and many other examples, the reserved space for black people was usually dirtier, in poorer condition, unsanitary or otherwise undesirable. Among the worst offenses was the fact that children were forced to attend separate schools for black and white students as a consequence of Plessy v. Ferguson. Needless to say, the black schools were in worse condition, with fewer resources and extremely inadequate learning conditions, not to mention often inconveniently far away from the students' homes.

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