Authored by LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor, , Attorney at Law

Famous Court Cases

In the last 200 years, the Supreme Court has been a factor in decisions that put an end to segregation, granted women’s rights, and guarded civil liberties that are still treasured today. Few cases in the Supreme Court’s history define, teach and inspire America’s history more than the following 10.

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

This is one of the most studied as well as well-known cases in Supreme Court history. Judicial review came out of this case. Judicial review permits the judicial branch (the Supreme Court) to review and eliminate the actions of the government’s executive (president) and legislative (congressional) branches of government. This enables the practice of separation of powers among the federal government’s three branches.

Marbury v. Madison is an example of a case that disagreed with this idea. President John Adams appointed William Marbury as the Justice of the Peace; he did this at the end of his presidential term. However, the Secretary of State did not deliver the necessary documents. When Thomas Jefferson got to be president, he told James Madison (his Secretary of State at the time) to deny Marbury’s commission, disliking the idea of members of the opposing political party taking office. When this case went to the Supreme Court after Marbury sued Madison, the Supreme Court ruled Madison’s action unconstitutional since it granted authority to the Supreme Court that the Constitution did not.

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

McCulloch v. Maryland found that sovereignty (independent authority over an area) remains in the US and not its individual states. This decision found that Congress had the right to establish the Second Bank of the United States, yet Maryland did not have the authority to tax it to prevent it from operating. This case concluded that Congress had the ability to make laws that would carry out its powers, such as borrowing money, collecting taxes and regulating interstate commerce.

Roe v. Wade (1973)

This case took on the issue of abortion, which is when a woman ends the life of her fetus before it can be delivered as a baby. Jane Roe was a single, unwed, pregnant woman who filed a class-action lawsuit against Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade. Her suit challenged the constitutionality of Texas law that stated that aborting a fetus was a felony unless the woman’s life was at risk. The Supreme Court upheld the right of a woman to have an abortion.

The Court also found that states have the right to regulate abortions. This decision was based on protecting the life of the mother and protecting prenatal life. A mother’s current trimester of pregnancy determines the state regulation. This case is the most heatedly contested case in all of Supreme Court history, and there have been and will continue to be efforts made to have it permanently overturned by some, and upheld by others.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

This case was important for the civil rights movement and for getting racial equality. In Topeka, Kansas, Linda Brown, her sisters and some other black students were not allowed access to nearby white, segregated schools. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) of Topeka filed a suit on behalf of a group of black people who thought their Fourteenth Amendment Rights were contravened by segregated schools. This suit was named after one of the plaintiffs named Oliver Brown.

The suit was first brought to a federal district court. There, segregation was upheld since the court believed that both white and black students access to the same quality buildings and transportation. The suit was then brought to the Supreme Court. There, it was determined that school segregation was unconstitutional because it offended the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Gideon v. Wainwright (1961)

In Gideon v. Wainwright, a Florida man named Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested after he was spotted next to the scene of a burglary, but he couldn’t afford an attorney. After he asked a Florida judge to have a lawyer represent him because he couldn’t afford one himself, he was told to instead represent himself. Gideon didn’t represent himself and was convicted and sentenced to state prison. From prison, Gideon pleaded with the Supreme Court that his rights were violated, and it agreed because of the Sixth Amendment.

Miranda v. Arizona (1966)

Miranda rights are rights that every policeman has to read a suspect when they are arrested. These are rights that have to do with remaining silent and getting an attorney if a suspect can’t afford one. This case made the reading of these rights a practice among cops. The case started because of Ernesto Miranda.

Miranda was arrested in Phoenix for both kidnapping as well as rape. However, he wasn’t told of his Fifth or his Sixth Amendment rights. These are rights against self-incrimination or help from a lawyer. The Supreme Court thought that the police in Phoenix failed to follow the needed steps to tell Miranda that he had the right to stay silent and get a lawyer if he couldn’t afford one himself.

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)

This case found that the federal government has absolute power over interstate business. The case came about due to a state law that granted a steamship company from New York a monopoly. It did this by letting them use New York’s waterways for business. Aaron Ogden was a business investor who could use this monopoly to his advantage. A monopoly is when one business has an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

Thomas Gibbons was a competing steamship trader. He wanted to also use the waterways to do business, but was not allowed. He was not permitted although he had a license from Congress. Gibbons sued Ogden before the Supreme Court, and the Court decided that the federal commerce clause was more important than the state law.

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

This case involved Dred Scott, a slave who was bought in Missouri and then transported to Illinois, which was a non-slave state. Scott and his slavemasters moved to Minnesota, which outlawed slavery, and then back to Missouri. Once his owner passed away, Scott sued the man’s widow and claimed that he was freed while in a non-slave state, therefore making him a slave no longer. The Supreme Court ruled that he was not a citizen of the state, blacks could not become citizens, and slaves don’t get to be free when transported to free states.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

This Supreme Court case started because of a Louisiana statute termed the Separate Car Act. This Act made all rail companies in the state offer equal but separate accommodations for both white and black passengers. In 1892, Homer Plessy got on a rail car that was meant only for whites, yet Plessy was one-eighth black, so he was instructed to go to the rail car for blacks. When Plessy refused, he was arrested and then jailed.

In Louisiana state court, Plessy said that the railroad company refused to give him his Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The judge in the case agreed with the railroad company. Plessy took his case to the Supreme Court. The Court thought that the railroad company was right to segregate because of Louisiana’s separate but equal doctrine.

Texas v. Johnson (1989)

This case extended First Amendment rights to also include symbolic speech. In a political demonstration, Gregory Lee Johnson lit the US flag on fire. Because many onlookers were offended at this act, Johnson was charged and also convicted of the desecration of a venerated object. However, when the Supreme Court heard the case, they sided with Johnson and overturned his conviction.