Major Supreme Court Decisions
Marbury v. Madison (1803)
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
Korematsu v. United States (1944)
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)
Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
Miranda v. Arizona (1966)
Roe v. Wade (1973)
Marbury v. Madison (1803)
In his last few hours in office, President John Adams made a series of “midnight
appointments” to fill as many government posts as possible with Federalists. One of these
appointments was William Marbury as a federal justice of the peace. However, Thomas
Jefferson took over as President before the appointment was officially given to Marbury.
Jefferson, a Republican, instructed Secretary of State James Madison to not deliver the
appointment. Marbury sued Madison
In a unanimous decision, written by Justice Marshall, the Court stated that Marbury, indeed,
had a right to his commission. But, more importantly, the Judiciary Act of 1789 was
unconstitutional. In Marshall's opinion, Congress could not give the Supreme Court the power
to issue an order granting Marbury his commission. Only the Constitution could, and the
document said nothing about the Supreme Court having the power to issue such an order.
Thus, the Supreme Court could not force Jefferson and Madison to appoint Marbury, because
it did not have the power to do so.
While Marbury never became a justice of the peace, the Court's ruling in Marbury v. Madison
established a very important precedent. A precedent is a legal decision that serves as an
example in later court cases. Chief Justice Marshall's ruling interpreted the Constitution to
mean that the Supreme Court had the power of judicial review. That is, the Court had the right
to review acts of Congress and, by extension, actions of the President. If the Court found that
a law was unconstitutional, it could overrule the law. Source 1, Source 2
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
Homer A. Plessy, acting on behalf of a committee that had been formed to
challenge Jim Crow laws, intentionally broke the law in order to initiate a case.
Returning by rail from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, Plessy was asked by railroad
officials to sit in the segregated area of the train. He refused. Arrested and charged,
Plessy unsuccessfully petitioned the Louisiana Supreme Court for a writ against
Ferguson, the trial court judge, to stop the proceedings against him. Plessy then
appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Justice Henry B. Brown of Michigan delivered the 7-1 decision of the Court that
upheld the Louisiana law requiring segregation. Brown noted that the law did not
violate either the 13th or 14th Amendments. He stated that the 13th Amendment
applied only to slavery, and the 14th amendment was not intended to give African
Americans social equality but only political and civil equality with white people.
In the key passage of the opinion, the Court stated that segregation was legal and
constitutional as long as “facilities were equal.” Thus the “separate but equal
doctrine” that would keep America divided along racial lines for over half a century
longer came into being. Source.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)
Linda Brown, an eight-year-old African-American girl, had been denied permission to attend an
elementary school only five blocks from her home in Topeka, Kansas. School officials refused to
register her at the nearby school, assigning her instead to a school for nonwhite students some
21 blocks from her home. Separate elementary schools for whites and nonwhites were
maintained by the Board of Education in Topeka. Linda Brown's parents filed a lawsuit to force the
schools to admit her to the nearby, but segregated, school for white students.
For a unanimous Court (9-0), Chief Justice Warren wrote in his first and probably most significant
decision, “[S]egregation [in public education] is a denial of the equal protection of the laws.”
Accepting the arguments put forward by the plaintiffs, Warren declared: “To separate [some
children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a
feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a
way unlikely ever to be undone.”
Summing up, Warren wrote: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of
'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal….
segregation [in public education] is a denial of the equal protection of the laws.”
The Brown decision did more than reverse the Plessy doctrine of “separate but equal.” It reversed
centuries of segregationist practice and thought in America. For that reason, the Brown decision
became the cornerstone of the social justice movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It finally brought
the spirit of the 14th Amendment into practice, more than three-quarters of a century after that
amendment had been passed. Source.
Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
Charged in a Florida State Court with a non-capital felony, petitioner appeared without
funds and without counsel and asked the Court to appoint counsel for him, but this was
denied on the ground that the state law permitted appointment of counsel for indigent
defendants in capital cases only. The petitioner conducted his own defense about as
well as could be expected of a layman, but he was convicted and sentenced to
imprisonment. Subsequently, he applied to the State Supreme Court for a writ of
habeas corpus on the ground that his conviction violated his rights under the Federal
In a unanimous opinion, the Court held that Gideon had a right to be represented by a
court-appointed attorney and, in doing so, overruled its 1942 decision of Betts v.
Brady. In this case the Court found that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of counsel
was a fundamental right, essential to a fair trial, which should be made applicable to
the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Justice Black called it an "obvious truth" that a fair trial for a poor defendant could not
be guaranteed without the assistance of counsel. Those familiar with the American
system of justice, commented Black, recognized that "lawyers in criminal courts are
necessities, not luxuries.” Source 1. Source 2.
Miranda v. Arizona (1966)
A kidnapping and sexual assault occurred in Phoenix, Arizona, in March 1963. On March 13
Ernesto Miranda, 23, was arrested in his home, taken to the police station, identified by the
victim, and taken into an interrogation room. Miranda was not told of his rights to counsel prior to
questioning. Two hours later, investigators emerged from the room with a written confession
signed by Miranda. It included a typed disclaimer, also signed by Miranda, stating that he had
“full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding any statement I make may be used against me,”
and that he had knowingly waived those rights.
Two weeks later at a preliminary hearing, Miranda again was denied counsel. At his trial he did
have a lawyer, whose objections to the use of Miranda's signed confession as evidence were
overruled. Miranda was convicted of kidnapping and rape, and received a 20-year sentence.
By a 5-4 margin, the Court voted to overturn Miranda's conviction. Writing for the majority, Chief
Justice Warren declared that the burden is upon the State to demonstrate that “procedural
safeguards effective to secure the Fifth-Amendment privilege against self-incrimination” are
Warren then spelled out the rights of the accused and the responsibilities of the police. Police must
warn a suspect “prior to any questioning that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he
says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney,
and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if
he so desires.” Source.
Korematsu v. United States (1944)
Fred Korematsu refused to obey the wartime order to leave his home and report to a relocation camp
for Japanese Americans. He was arrested and convicted. After losing in the Court of Appeals, he
appealed to the United States Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the deportation order.
In a 6-3 decision the Court ruled that legal restrictions on the rights of a single racial group will always
be “suspect” and that “courts must subject them to the most rigid scrutiny.” However, they are not
necessarily unconstitutional. The exclusion order imposed hardships “upon a large group of American
citizens. …But hardships are part of war….Compulsory exclusion of large groups of citizens from
their homes, except under circumstances of direst emergency and peril, is inconsistent with our basic
governmental institutions. But when under conditions of modern warfare our shores are threatened by
hostile forces, the power to protect must be commensurate with the threatened danger.”
Justice Owen Roberts wrote in his dissent that this “is the case of convicting a citizen as a punishment
for not submitting to imprisonment in a concentration camp, based on his ancestry, and solely because
of his ancestry, without evidence or inquiry concerning his loyalty and good disposition towards the
United States.” Justice Robert Jackson noted that comparable burdens were not imposed upon
descendents of the other nationalities (German, Italian) with whom the United States was also at war.
In 1988, Congress issued a formal apology for the suffering and loss of property the internment order
had caused, and in 1989 authorized reparations of $20,000 to each of the approximately 60,000
survivors of the internment camps. Source.
Roe v. Wade (1973)
In Texas, State law prohibited the termination of a pregnancy by artificial means (surgery) except when
the life of the mother was in danger. The statute was construed as a “nearly complete ban on abortion.”
A Texas woman, claiming privacy as a “fundamental right,” challenged the Texas statute. In 1971 the
case was argued before the Supreme Court. In 1972 it was argued again.
By a vote of 7-2, the Court agreed with Roe and upheld her right to terminate a pregnancy in the first
trimester (90 days). The Court observed that Section 1 of the 14th Amendment contained three
references to “person.” In his majority opinion, Justice Blackmun noted that, for nearly all such
references in the Constitution, “use of the word is such that it has application only postnatally. None
indicates, with any assurance, that it has any possible prenatal application.”
Blackmun's opinion carefully steered between the right to privacy and the question of compelling State
interest. On the first point, he wrote, the majority of the justices “do not agree” with Texas that the
State “may override the rights of the pregnant woman that are at stake.”
During the second trimester, States could regulate abortion to protect a woman's health. Finally, during
the third trimester, the State's interest in protecting the potential life of the fetus was sufficient to
justify severe restrictions.
Controversial when announced, the decision that guarantees women the right to choose as a
constitutional protection remains at the center of the legal controversy over the right to privacy versus
the rights of the unborn. In 1992, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Roe's central holding but abandoned
its trimester structure. Norma McCorvey, the anonymous “Roe,” is now a born-again Christian who
opposes abortion rights. Source 1. Source 2. Source 3.
Other Sources
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