Supreme Court cases

Supreme Court cases
1. Marbury v. Madison – 1803 - judicial review
In March 1801, Secretary of State James Madison refused to give William
Marbury a commission as a justice of the peace for Washington, DC, after
the previous presidential administration had authorized the commission.
Marbury sued under writ of mandamus to obtain his commission. The court’s
decision, written by Chief Justice John Marshall, dismissed Marbury’s suit
because he had sued under a writ of mandamus and the Constitution did not
include such writs within its listing of the powers of the Supreme Court. The
Judiciary Act of 1789 authorized the Supreme Court to issue a writ of
mandamus but claimed Marshall; Congress could not enlarge the powers of
the Supreme Court. Therefore, Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was
unconstitutional. This case is significant because it is the first time the
Supreme Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional. The second did
not occur until the Dred Scott case.
2. Fletcher v. Peck – 1810 – contracts & state laws
This case was the first to declare a state law void as a violation of the
Constitution. Influenced by bribes, the corrupt Georgia legislature sold land
to speculators. The outraged public elected virtually a new legislature at the
next election, and the new legislature rescinded the previous sale. The case
involved the legality of the sale of a tract of land made before the second
legislature rescinded the original transaction. Chief Justice John Marshall
wrote the decision. The Georgia legislature could not interfere with a
lawfully executed contract. No matter how the original land speculators had
obtained the land grant. Fletcher had made a legal, contractual purchase
with which the legislature could not interfere. The contract clause of the
Constitution overrode the state law.
3. Dartmouth College v. Woodward – 1819 – contracts & state laws
In 1816 the state legislature of NH took over Dartmouth College. The board
of trustees sued to regain control. Was the original charter granted in 1769
a contract within the meaning of the contract clause of the Constitution?
The Supreme Court ruled that it was. The charter of a private corporation
was protected by the Constitution and could not be altered by the people
through their legislature.
4. McCulloch v. Maryland – 1819 – elastic clause & federal/state relations
The state of Maryland levied a tax on the Baltimore branch of the Bank of
the United States. The cashier refused to pay the tax. The case raised the
question of the constitutionality of the 1791 act of Congress that created the
bank, and the question of whether a state could tax the federal government.
Marshall’s opinion supported the loose construction theory of the
Constitution. “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the
Constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adapted
to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of
the Constitution, are constitutional.” The act of Congress creating the Bank
was constitutional. In answering the second question the Court ruled that
“the power to tax is the power to destroy.” Think of the logic of taxation.
The annual tax on the Baltimore branch was $15,000. Once the principle of
state taxation of the Bank was admitted, though, what is the difference, in
principle between a $15,000 tax and a $483 billion dollar tax? A tax is a tax,
but the second tax puts the bank into bankruptcy. Therefore, the Maryland
tax was unconstitutional.
5. Gibbons v. Ogden – 1824 – Federal control of interstate commerce
This is the first case decided under the commerce clause. Two steamboat
operators clashed over their respective charters to control steamboats in
New York City harbor. One had a charter from the federal government; the
other had a monopoly grant from the state of NY. The decision affirmed
exclusive federal control of interstate commerce even in the absence of
federal legislation or action.
6. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia – 1831 – state laws, treaties, Indians
7. Worcester v. Georgia 1832 – see above
These two cases are part of the long struggle by Georgia to push the Cherokee
Indians westward. The federal government had much earlier promised to
support Georgia’s efforts. The Cherokee tried to stop a Georgia declaration
that the laws of the Cherokee were null and void. The Court ruled in the first
case that while it lacked jurisdiction, the Cherokee Nation was a “domestic,
dependent, nation” possessing some sovereignty, and not a foreign nation.
In the second case Marshall ruled that the laws of Georgia had no force
within the territorial boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. President Jackson,
no admirer of Marshall, reportedly said, “John Marshall has made his
decision, now let him enforce it.” In this clear clash between state law and
federal government, the president sided with the state of Georgia.
8. Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge – 1837 – contracts & community rights
The Charles River Bridge Company sued to protect the state of MA from
authorizing the construction of a new bridge across the Charles River. Was
its original charter a contract, an implied, vested, perpetual agreement?
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, in his first significant decision, ruled that no
charter granted to a private corporation permanently vested rights that might
harm the public interest. Taney wrote, “the continued existence of a
government would be of no great value, if by implications and presumptions,
it was disarmed of the powers necessary to accomplish the ends of its
creation; and the functions it was designed to perform, transferred to the
hands of privileged corporations.” The rights of the community supersede a
broad interpretation of the private rights of a corporation.
9. Commonwealth v. Hunt – 1842 – union’s right to organize
This MA decision ruled that trade union organization and strike tactics were
legal. Traditional interpretations considered unions illegal under the
conspiracy laws of English common law. This decision did not immediately
open a new era for labor unions; many judges continued to consider unions
to be illegal.
10. Prigg v. Pennsylvania – 1842 – fugitive slaves
PA tried to prohibit the capture and return of runaway slaves within the
state, a direct challenge to the federal government’s fugitive slave law of
1793. The state law was declared unconstitutional because the return of
fugitive slaves was a federal power as specified in article IV of the
Constitution. Many Northern states responded by prohibiting state officials
from assisting anyone pursuing runaway slaves (called personal property
11. Dred Scott v. Sandford – 1858 – citizenship & slaves
This complex case raised three questions. 1) Was Dred Scott a citizen? If he
wasn’t, he could not sue in a federal court. In other words, did the Supreme
Court have jurisdiction to hear the case? 2) Could Congress exclude slavery
from the territories? Since the territories were controlled by Congress, who
exercised a responsibility to represent all the people of the United States,
could Congress restrict citizens of one section form taking their slaves to the
territories? 3) If slaves are property, is the owner not protected by the Fifth
Amendment from being deprived of his property without compensation?
Dred Scott was owned by an army doctor who took Scott into Illinois and
part of Wisconsin territory. Slavery had been outlawed in these two areas by
the Northwest Ordinance and Illinois law and by the Missouri Compromise of
1820. Scott sued for his freedom based on the argument that residence on
free soil made him a free man. That case quickly became a test case, with
the doctor’s widow selling Scott to her brother, Sandford, in New York. The
involvement of two different states forced the case into the federal courts.
All the judges wrote separate opinions in the case, which caused the
debate to go on long after the decisions. The majority held that Scott was
not a citizen; free blacks or slaves could not be citizens of the United States.
They could be granted state citizenship. (The 14th amendment clearly
granted dual citizenship to abolish this aspect of the case.) The judges could
have ended their explanation here, and they hoped to do so. Two Northern
Supreme Court justices, however, announced their intention to write long
dissenting opinions against the majority, and the majority was forced to
refute the hostile dissents. But the majority itself was so divided in its
reasoning that all the majority judges wrote separate opinions. In answering
the other two questions the Taney court declared the Missouri Compromise
null and void because it prohibited a citizen of the United States from taking
his property (slaves) into the territories. Southerners smiled; Northerners
bristled with contempt. Dred Scott’s owner freed him and his family.
12. Ex parte Milligan – 1866 – constitutional rights during the war
Lambdin Milligan, a citizen of Indiana, was arrested for subversive activities
in support of the Southern cause during the Civil War. He was tried,
convicted, and sentenced to die by a military court in Indiana in spite of the
fact that the Indiana civilian court system was functioning. Milligan’s appeal
to the Supreme Court raised the question of the dividing line between civil
and military control over civilians during wartime. The Supreme Court ruled
that while the Constitution permitted the suspension of habeas corpus, it did
not suspend the judicial powers of federal courts. Military tribunals could be
established, but when the federal courts were “open and ready” no other
court could claim jurisdiction. Milligan sued for damages for false
imprisonment and a jury awarded him five dollars.
13. Slaughterhouse cases – 1873 – privileges and immunities clause
The three suits in the Slaughterhouse cases were the first under the
Fourteenth Amendment. Both the majority opinion and dissenting opinions
molded the interpretations of the 14th Amendment for decades. The
Louisiana Reconstruction state government granted a monopoly to one
corporation for butchering livestock in New Orleans, and put more than one
thousand butchers out of business. The butchers claimed this act violated
the 14th Amendment, abridging their “privileges and immunities” as citizens
of the United States. In a 5-4 decision the Court ruled a sharp distinction
between state privileges and rights and federal privileges and rights. The
14th Amendment protected only the latter; it offered no protection against
state infringement. Most rights of citizenship are state, not national. The
Court narrowly interpreted the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments as designed
solely for freeing slaves and establishing citizenship rights for blacks.
The dissenting opinions of two judges foreshadowed the future emphasis
of the first clause of the 14th amendment. The due process and equal
protection clauses became the heart of the amendment’s later
interpretations, which made the guarantees of the Bill of Rights applicable to
14. In re Debs – 1895 – labor and injunctions
During the Pullman Strike in 1894, the Pullman Company obtained an
injunction under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. After refusing to comply, the
union’s leader, Eugene V. Debs, was arrested for contempt of court. Debs’
writ of habeas corpus to the Supreme Court was denied on the basis of a
broad interpretation of the commerce clause and the federal government’s
obligation to deliver the mail. Justice Brewer wrote, “The strong arm of the
national government may be put forth to brush away all obstructions to the
freedom of interstate commerce or the transportation of the mails.” Critics
and cynics wondered why “the strong arm of the national government” did
not move as swiftly against monopolies.
15. Plessy v. Ferguson – 1896 – separate but equal
One-eighth black, Homer Plessy was fined for refusing to leave a railroad car
restricted to only whites. Louisiana state law required “separate but equal”
facilities. The 14th Amendment ensured political equality, not social equality.
“We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in
the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the
colored race with a badge of inferiority. If that be so, it is not by reason of
anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put
that construction upon it.” According to the Court, separate was not second
class citizenship. The legislature could do only so much to ensure civil rights.
“Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions
based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in
accentuating the difficulties of the present situation. If the civil and political
rights of both races be equal one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or
politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the
United States cannot put them upon the same plane.”
In a stinging dissent Justice Harlan laid the foundation for the arguments
that overturned the Plessy decision in Brown v. the Board of Education of
Topeka, Kansas, 1954. “Our Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows
nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are
equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The
law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his
color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are
involved. It is, therefore, to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final
expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached this conclusion
that it is competent for a state to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their
civil rights solely upon the basis of race.”
16. Insular Cases 1901-1904 – constitutional rights in the territories
Three appeals to the Supreme Court raised questions concerning the extent to
which constitutional rights were bestowed automatically upon natives in
newly acquired territories. The Supreme Court slowly worked out a new
judicial position for the Constitution. Some rights are fundamental and
applied to all American territory. Other rights are procedural and should not
be imposed upon those unfamiliar with American law. Congress must
determine which procedural rights applied in unincorporated territories.
17. Muller v. Oregon – 1908 – due process & state police power
This case is famous for the novel arguments presented by Louis Brandeis,
who was later appointed to the Supreme Court. Oregon limited women to
only ten hours of labor in factories and laundries. Curt Muller owned a
laundry in Portland, and based on the Lochner decision he refused to comply
with the new law. His appeal eventually reached the Supreme Court. In
defense of the Oregon law, Brandeis presented only two pages of legal
arguments and over one hundred pages detailing statistics and opinions from
various commission reports on the adverse impact of long hours on the
health of women. In an unanimous decision the Court accepted the
economic and social arguments in the “Brandeis brief.” Brandeis argued that
the law must come out of facts, not abstract logic. The majority opinion in
Lochner cited the “common knowledge” that baking was not a difficult
occupation. Brandeis undermined any potential opinion that the health of a
nation’s female population was not a legitimate governmental concern. The
Court found that “in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race…a
woman’s physical structure, and the functions she performs in consequence
thereof, justify special legislation restricting or qualifying the conditions
under which she should be permitted to toil.”
18. Danbury Hatters’ Case – 1908 – Loewe v. Lawlor – antitrust & labor unions
Unable to secure union recognition at the Danbury Hatters Company owned
by Loewe and others, the hatters’ union instituted a boycott against the
company’s hats. The unanimous Supreme Court decision held the boycott to
be a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and required triple damages
against the union for the amount of normal income lost due to the boycott.
Labor unions were shocked. They found partial exemption from the antitrust
laws in the Clayton Act.
19. Schenck v. US – 1919 – radicals and the First Amendment
Schenck, an official of the Socialist party, was arrested and convicted for
violation of the Espionage Act of 1917 because he and other socialists had
distributed leaflets to draftees urging them to resist. On one side of the
leaflet was a copy of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery or
involuntary servitude. Schenck claimed he was protected by the First
Amendment freedom of speech and press. The opinion by the unanimous
Court announced Justice Holmes’s “clear and present danger” test. Every act
must be judged according to the circumstances. No freedom is absolute;
First Amendment questions were a matter of “proximity and degree,” and the
nation was at war. He included his often-quoted remark that “freedom of
speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and
causing a panic.”
20. Abrams v. US – 1919 – radicals and the First Amendment
The Abrams case involved the Sedition Act of 1918, an amendment to the
Espionage Act of 1917. Five Russian immigrants were convicted for
distributing antiwar propaganda. Justice Holmes, who wrote the opinion in
the Schenck case, dissented from the 7-2 decision. Holmes recognized that
the “United States constitutionally may punish speech that produced or is
intended to produce a clear and imminent danger that will bring about
forthwith certain substantive evils that the United States constitutionally may
seek to prevent. The power undoubtedly is greater in time of war than in
time of peace because war opens dangers that do not exist at other times.”
In a brilliant plea for freedom of speech and press he wrote, “when men
have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they come to believe
even more than they believe the foundations of their own conduct that the
ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the best
test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the
competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their
wishes safely can be carried out.”
21. Schecter Poultry Corp v. US – 1935 – constitutionality of New Deal programs
This “Sick Chicken Case” unanimously found the National Industrial Recovery
Act unconstitutional. Under the act the NRA was directed to establish codes
for each industry in partnership with industries and unions. If the industry
did not establish its code, the NRA could impose one. This last feature of the
law violated the Constitution because it granted legislative powers to the
executive branch. The act also exceeded the government’s interstate
commerce authority by attempting to regulate the killing of chickens for
market, which the Court found to be an intrastate activity. Chief Justice
Hughes rejected the argument that a national emergency justified the NRA.
22. NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp – 1937-interstate commerce, control
of labor
Many students mistakenly believe that most bitter strikes involve wage
demands. The most disruptive strikes have actually involved union
recognition, the industry’s acquiescence in the union’s right to represent the
workers and to engage in collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations
Board was established to supervise and conduct elections for workers
deciding upon union representation. In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld the
constitutionality of the Wagner Act creating the NLRB. The Court broadly
defined commerce, asserting Congress’s right to legislate broadly in the
“stream of commerce” because commerce was more than mere
23. Korematsu v. US – 1944 – war powers and civilians
Korematsu was arrested and convicted for noncompliance with the military
order that moved all people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast into
relocation centers after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Court upheld the
action in a 6-3 decision based upon a broad interpretation of the nation’s war
powers. Fred Korematsu had tried to enlist in the army, but was rejected
because of ulcers. He then spent his entire life savings of $150 to learn
welding to help the war effort. Instead he was arrested.
24. Brown v. Board of Education – 1954 – segregation
In 1951, Oliver Brown filed suit on behalf of his daughter, Linda, who was
abused to a black school over twenty blocks away. Another elementary
school for whites only was five blocks away. Three other cases – from South
Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware – were also filed at this time. This is one of
the most significant cases ever decided by the Supreme Court. Recognizing
the impact of this case, the Court entertained arguments from all quarters.
Fifty-one “friends of the court” briefs were filed along with those involved in
the case. The majority opinion, 8-0, relied heavily on sociological and
psychological factors as well as legal arguments. Segregation had to end.
“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate
but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently
unequal.” The Court did not order immediate compliance, but instead
directed the lower courts to implement compliance, but instead directed
lower courts to implement the order “with all deliberate speed.” This speed
was lacking for a number of years.
25. Gideon v. Wainwright – 1963 – right to a lawyer
Gideon was arrested in 1961 for breaking into a pool room. He asked for a
court-appointed lawyer because he could not afford one. Florida law
provided lawyers for penniless defendants only in capital crimes, which
carried a possible death penalty. The Supreme Court decided that legal
counsel must be provided for all persons charged with a felony. In 1972 the
Court extended the right to counsel to anyone charged with misdemeanors,
a lesser category of crimes, in a decision in regard to Jon Argersinger,
another Floridian. Argersinger was sentenced to 90 days in jail for carrying a
concealed weapon.
26. Miranda v. Arizona – 1966 – rights of the accused
The Miranda decision culminated the 1960s trend toward protecting the
rights of the accused. In a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court stated that an
arrested person must be told that he has the right to remain silent; that
whatever he says may be used against him; that he has the right to be
represented by a lawyer; that if he cannot afford a lawyer one will be
provided; and finally, that he is permitted one telephone call to obtain a
lawyer or contact someone to make arrangements for him to arrange for a
lawyer and bail proceedings. The Supreme Court justices were heavily
criticized for coddling criminals. In a rare comment before a convention of
chiefs of police, one justice stated that in America it is supposed to be
difficult to arrest and convict someone.
27. Engle v. Vitale – 1962 – religion in public schools
Struck down prayer composed by the New York State Board of Regents, the
state public education authority. Later cases ended the reciting of the Lord’s
Prayer and the daily reading of ten Bible verses. The Court held that under
the Constitution religion is “too personal, too sacred, too holy” for
governmental sanction. Religion is a personal matter; government is a public
28. Baker v. Carr – 1962 – legislative reapportionment
Beginning with the Baker case, the Supreme Court ended the old practice of
apportioning legislative districts to overrepresent rural areas. The boundary
lines for both houses of the state legislatures and for congressional districts
must reflect the principle of “one man, one vote” as much as possible.
Before the Baker case, federal courts avoided reapportionment arguments as
“political questions” to be resolved by the legislatures and the voters.
29. Bakke v. Board of Regents – 1978 – reverse discrimination
This reverse discrimination case involved a claim by a white, Allan Bakke,
that he was the victim of discrimination. The Civil Rights Act of 1965
prohibited discrimination based on race, but in order to compensate for the
collective results of previous discrimination practices, the University of
California at Davis reserved sixteen of its hundred openings for medical
school specifically for non-whites. Objective scores and measurements of
Bakke’s potential put him outside the 84 slots for whites, but higher than the
successful applicants for the sixteen non-white positions. In a 5-4 decision
the Court upheld both Bakke’s admission and the university’s use of race to
ensure a diverse student body.
30. Roe v. Wade – 1973 – abortion rights (also Doe v. Bolton)
These two cases struck down Texas and Georgia state statutes prohibiting
abortions. The Court found such laws to be an infringement on rights to
privacy protected by the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court
limited state legislation by defining three stages of pregnancy and specifying
when and which state restrictions were legal.
These two cases illustrate a weakness within our political system. Our
political system works because it facilitates compromises at many different
levels before a policy decision is actually rendered. When the issue involved
is a moral issue – abortion or slavery – compromise become difficult, if not
impossible. Moral right and wrong leave no middle ground for compromise.
Half right is the same as half-sinful; something is either sinful or it is not,
especially to those who know that they are morally in the right. Our political
system does not handle deeply felt moral issues well.