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Landmark Cases ABC CLIO

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Landmark Cases (Overview)
U.S. courts, and particularly the Supreme Court, frequently have to make
decisions on issues about which the Constitution is silent or ambiguous.
Many of the Supreme Court's decisions on such matters are regarded as
landmarks with almost the same authority as the Constitution itself. The
Court often proceeds incrementally, building its decisions on precedents.
Judicial review
An early example of a landmark is the Court's decision in 1803 in Marbury v.
Madison. In a case involving the lawfulness of a presidential appointment,
the Court ruled that it could not issue an order in the case because the case
had improperly come to it as a case of original jurisdiction rather than on
appeal. In declaring that the portion of the Judiciary Act (1789) that appeared
to grant the Supreme Court authority to be the first to hear the case violated
Article III of the Constitution, and was therefore unconstitutional, the Court helped establish the principle of judicial
review, allowing it to void unconstitutional legislation. Although Chief Justice John Marshall argued that this principle
was implicit within the U.S. Constitution, the document did not specifically state it.
The Supreme Court's power to void unconstitutional state legislation might ultimately be more important than its
power over congressional legislation. The Court frequently has to decide whether state laws are consistent with
national powers, especially in areas related to federal control of interstate and foreign commerce. In one landmark
case called Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), the Court decided that the state of New York's grant of a monopoly to a
steamship company violated congressional powers over interstate commerce (Congress had granted licenses to
other ships).
In McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the Court ruled that decisions by previous presidents and congresses to approve a
national bank were constitutional despite the fact that the power to establish a corporation or bank was not
specifically listed within the Constitution. The Court thus upheld the doctrine of implied powers and rejected the idea
that the Tenth Amendment reserved such a power to the states. In this same case, it upheld national authority
against the states by deciding that entrusting the state of Maryland with the right to tax the bank would violate the
supremacy of federal laws.
Clarifying presidential powers
Although the Constitution specifies that the president appoints key officers with the "advice and consent of the
Senate," it does not specify whether the president needs senatorial consent to fire them. Myers v. United States
(1926) was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court decided that the president did not need such consent and
that if the president were to administer the government effectively, he needed to be able to dismiss those in whom he
no longer had confidence.
United States v. Nixon (1974) could be regarded as another legal landmark. In this case, the Court recognized that a
president had a limited right (designated executive privilege) to withhold certain documents from other branches of
government, especially in cases involving military secrets. However, the Court also decided that this right did not
American Government
extend to occasions where presidents might be obstructing lawful investigations of possible criminal activities.
Extending the Bill of Rights
In Barron v. Baltimore (1833), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the provisions of the Bill of Rights applied only to
the national government. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment subsequently subjected state governments to a
number of restraints including provisions that they respect the privileges and immunities and the due process rights
of U.S. citizens. In Gitlow v. United States (1925), the Court concluded that these rights included the right to free
speech. Subsequently, most such provisions of the Bill of Rights have been "incorporated" into the due process
clause and thus also applied to the states. One of the latest provisions to be so applied was the right to bear arms in
the Second Amendment.
Although provisions in the Bill of Rights are often worded in broad terms, they have to be applied to individual
situations that often require judicial interpretations. The Court has thus had to decide on the limits of speech and
press and on the degree to which the Constitution protects the rights of criminal defendants. Although the Fourth
Amendment prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures," it took Supreme Court decisions in Week s v. United
States (1914) and Mapp v. Ohio (1961) to decide that this mandated an exclusionary rule prohibiting the use of
evidence found in such illegal searches first in national and then in state proceedings.
Evolving interpretations
Many landmarks are important not so much because they fill in a constitutional gap but because they change
previous interpretations. Thus 1954's Brown v. Board of Education reversed the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
approving the doctrine of "separate but equal" and ruled that racial segregation did violate the equal protection clause
of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Power of the Supreme Court
One of the most noticeable aspects of the U.S. Constitution, especially by comparison to most state constitutions,
is its brevity. Such brevity implies that it intended only to present the main outlines of governmental institutions,
allowing decisions to be made by the structures and forms that the Constitution set in place. The Founders generally
expected that Congress would make the laws, the president would enforce them, and the courts would interpret
them. Courts have special responsibility to interpret the laws because they must hear real "cases and controversies"
that individuals bring to them under the Constitution. Although some scholars still advocate a view, in which each
branch is thought to have equal authority to interpret the Constitution, most recognize that the executive and
legislative branches have to adhere to decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court until the Court either changes its
collective mind or it is reversed by constitutional amendment. For example, although he detested the decision in
Scott v. Sandford (1857) that declared that blacks were not and could not be U.S. citizens, Abraham Lincoln thus
recognized that the decision meant that Scott had to remain a slave unless someone bought his freedom; ultimately,
the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) and Fourteenth Amendments (1868) reversed the Scott decision.
Further Reading
Hall, Kermit L., ed. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. 2d ed. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2005; Schultz, David, John R. Vile, and Michelle D. Deardorff. Institutions, Politics, and Process,
Volume I of Constituitonal Law in Contemporary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011; Vile, John R.
Essential Supreme Court Decisions: Summaries of Leading Cases in U.S. Constitutional Law, 15th ed. Lanham,
MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2010.
Select Citation Style:
American Government
Vile, John R. "Landmark Cases (Overview)." American Government. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 29 May 2013.
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Entry ID: 1184543