Some time ago, before everything in the world got too crazy, a friend of mine approached me to write a post about the Top Ten Supreme Court Cases. I was immediately interested, and we spent the rest of day volleying cases back and forth until we settled on ten of the most important cases in American history.
What makes a Supreme Court case worthy of the list? For the purposes of this listicle, my soon-to-be-lawyer friend Jeff and I have decided to only consider cases that are both ground-breaking and advance people’s rights. There’s no denying that a case like Plessy v. Ferguson is “important” but it also created the doctrine of “separate but equal” which no one alive today would argue is a good thing. There's also a little bias here about what constitutes a "good" case, in that I mostly chose cases I liked. I'd say "sue me" but I don't believe you can legally do that.
So we are going to dive right in, with a controversial but important free speech case:
10. Brandenburg v. Ohio
It’s the facts of the case that are controversial here. Mr. Brandenburg, a Ku Klux Klan leader, made a speech at a rally and was later arrested for violating Ohio’s law, which made it illegal to advocate a "crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform," and it made it illegal to assemble "with any society, group, or assemblage of persons formed to teach or advocate the doctrines of criminal syndicalism."
It’s pretty clear that Brandenburg violated the law, but what the Warren Court was deciding was whether or not the law was “overly broad.” The Court found that it was, and that freedom of speech should protect inflammatory speech, especially speech that wasn’t trying to cause lawless action. This led to the Brandenburg Test which is still used today when determining whether or not inflammatory speech crosses a line. According to this test, speech and advocacy has to be “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action,” and must also be “likely to incite or produce such action.”
To put it in layman’s terms, if I am at a transportation rally and I say “the C train is so slow, I want to rip up the tracks and start again,” the Brandenburg Test would say that’s fine, since my speech, while inflammatory against the C Train, is not likely to produce imminent lawless action. But if I’m at that same rally and I say “I have pick axes here, and I want you all to come with me, right now, and rip up the tracks of the C train! I want to rip up the C train with you,” that’s probably not going to be ok.
9. Mapp v. Ohio
And Ohio gets taken to court again. This time the facts of the case are not about the KKK, but about pornography. Dollree Mapp was an employee of an illegal gambling operation, and police showed up to her home one day to search for a fugitive and gambling paraphernalia. They knocked on Mapp's door and asked to search the apartment. Mapp said no. The police entered anyway, and found the gambling paraphernalia, as well as some porn.
Mapp was convicted of possessing pornographic material, which was apparently illegal in 1958. Mapp took her case all the way to the Supreme Court stating that it was her First Amendment right to own porn, and her Fourth Amendment right to not have her home searched against her will.
The court declined to rule on whether or not porn was protected under the First Amendment, but they didn't have to. Instead, they ruled that the search of Mapp's home had violated the Fourth Amendment which protects people from unreasonable search and seizure, and they further ruled that no evidence obtained during an illegal search can be used in court.
And what that means for you is that you really shouldn't consent to a search until you've spoken with a lawyer or until the police have a warrant. Any good public defender can get illegally obtained paraphernalia thrown out of evidence, but if you consent to a search, all that info is now obtained legally. If someone wants to search you, make sure you see the warrant, and if you don't see one, don't consent to a search. That's your right, thanks to Dollree Mapp.
8. Lawrence v. Texas
A straight political blogger maybe wouldn't include Lawrence v. Texas, but to me, it's the case that all other gay rights cases are built on. Up until 1960, gay sex was illegal in every state, and while those laws were slowly falling away, by 2003, there were still a handful of states that criminalized sodomy between two men.
Georgia was one of those states, and in 1998, John Lawrence had his friend Tyron Gardner over. Police responded to reports of a "black male with a gun going crazy" in the area, and had probable cause to enter Lawrence's apartment, where they found the two men engaged in sexual intercourse. The men were arrested, and Lambda Legal found the test case they were waiting for to try to strike down the sodomy laws in the 13 states that still had them.
The Supreme Court had to decide if the laws prosecuting sodomy between homosexual couples, but not punishing sodomy between heterosexual couples, violated the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause. They found that unequally applied laws did not violate the Equal Protection Clause because you can't win them all.
But six judges did agree that laws criminalizing gay sex should be overturned, and Bowers v. Hardwick, a 1986 case that said it was fine to criminalize sodomy for gay people, because to allow sodomy would be to
"cast aside millennia of moral teaching."
This was the case that ruled once and for all (hopefully) that gay people aren't criminals, and I believe it was this case that helped pave the way for the other gay rights cases. And the late Justice Scalia said this decision "laid waste the foundations of our rational-basis jurisprudence." Good stuff.
7. McCulloch v. Maryland
Another old case, but a very important one. When the United States was founded, people were a little skittish about federal power, having just come from a repressive and powerful central government. So when Congress chartered the second bank of the United States in 1819, Maryland passed legislation to impose taxes on the bank, since they only wanted to support banks that were chartered in Maryland. The cashier of the Baltimore branch of the bank refused to pay the tax.
The Supreme Court ruled that the United States Congress did in fact have the authority to create a bank. Marshall also ruled that just because states had ratified the Constitution didn't mean they were fully sovereign. They still had to obey the laws of the central government. And this is why, when Congress passes a law, it applies to every state, even states that don't agree with it. Basically, this is the precedent that made Kim Davis' life difficult.
6. Baker v. Carr
You may have heard a lot about gerrymandering and redistricting recently. The vast majority of Congressional districts are cut in a way that they benefit one party over the other. People try to minimize the amount of safe seats that the opposing party can count on, while maximizing the districts they feel their party can win comfortably. This leads to ridiculous looking districts.
Baker v. Carr, one of the many wonderful Warren Court decisions, Justice Brennan (liberal lion) wrote the opinion that said the Courts were allowed to intervene in cases of gerrymandering and legislative apportionment. I mean, whether or not this worked is questionable, but Warren said it was one of the most important cases he heard as Chief Justice.
5. Gideon v. Wainwright
As the child of a public defender (check out my dad doing some great work here) I'm very partial to Gideon v. Wainwright. Clarence Earl Gideon appeared in court on a felony for breaking and entering with the intent to commit a misdemeanor. When he showed up in court without a lawyer, he asked the court to appoint one. The court declined, since Florida law (of course) only required that attorney's be provided in "capital cases," i.e. cases that involve the death penalty.
Gideon was sentenced to 5 years in prison, since its hard for the Average Clarence to win against a trained lawyer. But Clarence Earl Gideon, not to be deterred, took his case to the Supreme Court, where the Warren Court (HEROES ALL) decided that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel in criminal cases did extend to state courts.
You may not know the name of Gideon v. Wainwright, but if you've ever seen an episode of Law & Order, you know what this court decision led to. The famous, "if you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you," which brings us smoothly to our next case...
4. Miranda v. Arizona
Ever wonder why police officers always say "you have a right to remain silent, etc. etc." when they're arresting someone? Ernesto Miranda and this case are the reason why. Ernesto was arrested on charges of kidnapping and rape, and was subjected to an intense interrogation where no one at any time informed him of his right to have counsel present. He ultimately confessed, and on his appeal, the Supreme Court of Arizona said Miranda's rights had not been violated, since he had never specifically requested a lawyer.
But Earl Warren came to the rescue. The Supreme Court found that the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination extends to interrogations, and that the prosecution cannot use statements from an interrogation if they have not taken the time to inform a subject of their rights.
And this is why, if you are ever arrested, the first words out of your mouth should be "I want a lawyer" and you shouldn't say anything else until they get there. Earl Warren says it's your right. Use it.
3. Griswold v. Connecticut
Astute students of my behavior will now begin to wonder where Roe v. Wade is on this list. And, shocker, I actually do not have Roe v. Wade on the list. Yes, Roe v. Wade is a groundbreaking case that ensured a woman's right to access to a safe and legal abortion. But without Griswold v. Connecticut, there is no Roe, and that's why Griswold makes the list.
Estelle Griswold was the Executive Director of a Planned Parenthood, and she shared information about birth control with married couples. She was convicted under a Connecticut Statute that made it illegal to provide counseling to people for the purposes of preventing conception.
But as you all know by now, Planned Parenthood isn't gonna take that shit lying down. Seven of the nine judges on the court weren't about to either. The Warren Court determined that the First, Third, Fourth and Ninth Amendments together created a right to privacy for married couples. It was this right to privacy that set the stage for Roe v. Wade less than eight years later.
2. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
Brown v. Board is the case that obliterated the notion that separate but equal was a real constitutional principle. African-American students were denied acceptance to school’s because of laws allowing segregation, laws which were allowed under Plessy v. Ferguson, which said that segregation was fine, as long as the separate facilities were equal.
The groundbreaking thing about Brown v. Board was that it held that separate facilities were inherently unequal, and this case marked one of the first times the Court relied on social science findings when making its decision. To prove that separate facilities were unequal, attorney Thurgood Marshall used an experiment by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, where they showed black and white dolls to children and asked which they preferred. Their findings showed that children overwhelmingly preferred, and assigned positive characteristics to, the white dolls, which proved that black children had lower self-esteem, and white children had innate prejudices about black people, in ages as young as three. Marshall (who later became a Supreme Court judge) used this to argue that separate schools were hurting children's’ psyches.
One of the more interesting things about this decision was that it was very important to Chief Justice Earl Warren that the decision be unanimous, and he circulated many different opinions before everyone finally came to a consensus.
Now without further ado, your number one most important case of all time:
1. Marbury v. Madison
The granddaddy of them all. Without Marbury v. Madison, nothing else gets done. Decided in 1803, this case’s details are almost too boring to discuss. Basically, John Adams made some very late appointments, and his secretary of state, named John Marshall, didn't deliver all the commissions before Jefferson took office. So Jefferson told James Madison, his secretary of state, not to deliver the commissions. And then the men who didn't get their commissions sued Madison, because they felt that they deserved their appointments.
The court decided that the men had been properly appointed, and they could receive their commissions. But the Chief Justice (also named...John Marshall) also said that the court could not compel Jefferson to appoint the men, because the Section that gave them the power to do that in the Judiciary Act of 1789 was an unconstitutional section.
This was the first time ever that the court had said a law passed by Congress was unconstitutional. In one decision, Marshall gave the court the power to review acts of Congress, something that had thus far been out of the Supreme Court's jurisdiction.
Before Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court functioned like any other court, nothing special. In this case, Marshall said that the court had the power to strike down and challenge laws passed by Congress that were unconstitutional, in a process called “judicial review.” Anything the court has done since 1803 to change or make laws is mostly thanks to this one decision, and that is why it ranks as the most important case on the list.