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Landmark US Supreme Court rulings throughout history

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The Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday June 25, 2015.

FILE - The Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday June 25, 2015.

Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press

The Supreme Court declared Friday that same-sex couples have a right to marry in all U.S. states.

The decision followed Thursday’s announcement upholding nationwide health care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

With such large decisions being released, we’ve compiled a list of some landmark Supreme Court rulings. They are divided into four categories: rulings overturning federal law, rulings overturning state law, rulings upholding federal law and rulings upholding state law.

Landmark cases overturning federal law

Marbury v. Madison

Date Decided: February 23, 1803

Chief Justice Presiding: John Marshall

Vote Split: 4-0

Summary: John Adams, before vacating the presidency, appointed a number of judges in an attempt to hinder Thomas Jefferson’s incoming administration. 

But Adams’ Secretary of State failed to deliver all of the appointees’ commissions. When Jefferson took office, he instructed his new Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver the remaining notices, which meant some appointees had to wait and couldn’t assume their positions. 

William Marbury, one of the appointees, got tired of waiting and petitioned the Supreme Court to force Madison to deliver his commission. 

Instead, the Supreme Court decided unanimously that Madison was not required to deliver the agreement. They said the law requiring such action — the Judiciary Act of 1789 — conflicted with something in the Constitution and was therefore unconstitutional and void.

The Supreme Court ruling in Marbury v. Madison essentially set up the role of checks and balances and established the process of judicial review, or the ability of the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of laws. 

Overturned: The Supreme Court overturned parts of the Judiciary Act of 1789. It was the first act of Congress to be partially invalidated by the Supreme Court.

Dred Scott v. Sandford

Date decided: March 6, 1857

Presiding Chief Justice: Roger B. Taney

Vote split: 7-2

Summary: Dred Scott was born a slave and lived for some time in Missouri. But from 1833 to 1843 he resided with his owner in Illinois (a free state) and in an area of the Louisiana Purchase where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. After returning to Missouri, Scott unsuccessfully sued in the Missouri courts for his freedom. Scott claimed that his residency in Illinois made him a free man. Scott then filed a new suit in federal court. His master maintained under Article III of the Constitution that no pure-blooded Negro of African descent and the descendant of slaves could be a citizen, and the jury found in favor of Scott’s owner.

The Supreme Court ruled that Scott could not file a federal lawsuit because he was not a citizen, and only citizens could bring suit. The court concluded that no person descended from an American slave was a citizen. In addition, his Illinois state citizenship was invalidated because under Articles III and IV only Congress could confer national citizenship, and no one but a citizen of the United States could be a citizen of a state. 

Overturned: The Supreme Court overturned the Missouri Compromise, declaring it unconstitutional. The federal government had no power or authority to prohibit slavery in the territories acquired after the creation of the U.S. This decision would ultimately be overturned by the passing of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

City of Boerne v. Flores

Date Decided: June 25, 1997

Chief Justice Presiding: William Rehnquist

Vote Split: 6-2

Summary: Patrick Flores, Catholic Archbishop of San Antonio, applied for a building permit to expand his church in Boerne, Texas. The problem was his building was located in a historic district and was considered a property that added to the historic value of the area. Zoning authorities denied Flores the permit because of an ordinance governing additions and new construction in historic districts. 

Flores subsequently sued local authorities for violating his rights under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA prevented laws that substantially burdened a person’s free exercise of their religion, and Flores claimed that his congregation had outgrown the current building and was therefore under substantial burden. A lower court ruled against Flores, saying that RFRA was unconstitutional. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, but the Supreme Court sided with the original court decision. 

Overturned: In a 6-2 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that RFRA was unconstitutional, saying it was not a proper exercise of Congress’ enforcement power.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Comission

Date Decided: January 21, 2010

Chief Justice Presiding: John G. Roberts

Vote Split: 5-4

Summary: Citizens United, a conservative lobbying group, wanted to air commercials promoting a film it had produced which was critical of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton. However, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the commercials violated the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, or BCRA, which in part regulates the financing of political campaigns. Citizens United argued that some of the sections in BCRA violate First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the district court and struck down those provisions of BCRA that prohibited corporations and unions from making independent expenditures and “electioneering communications.” 

The case did not, however, address the federal ban on direct contributions from corporations or unions to candidate campaigns or political parties, which still remain illegal in races for federal office. 

Overturned: The Supreme Court overturned sections of BCRA.

United States v. Windsor

Date Decided: June 26, 2013

Chief Justice Presiding: John G. Roberts

Vote Split: 5-4

Summary: In 2007, Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, residents of New York, married in Toronto, Ontario. New York legally recognized their same-sex marriage which was performed in another jurisdiction. However, after Spyer’s death in 2009, federal law required Windsor to pay $363,000 in taxes because the marriage was not recognized by the federal government. 

Had their marriage been recognized by the federal government, no taxes would have been imposed because the estate would have qualified for a marital exemption.

Windsor filed suit in district court seeking a declaration that the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, was unconstitutional.

Overturned: On June 26, 2013 the Supreme Court overturned Section 3 of DOMA saying that it violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws and that it was unconstitutional.

Landmark cases overturning state law

McCulloch v. Maryland

Date Decided: March 6, 1819

Chief Justice Presiding: John Marshall

Vote Split: 7-0

Summary: In 1816, the United States incorporated the Second Bank of the United States. However, in 1818, the state of Maryland passed legislation to impose taxes on all banks not chartered within Maryland, which at the time only applied to the Second Bank of the United States. James W. McCulloch, the cashier of the Baltimore branch of the bank, refused to pay the Maryland state tax. 

The state sued McCulloch to collect the tax, and the state court ruled for Maryland, a decision that was upheld on appeal. However, the Supreme Court recognized the language of Maryland’s law as specifically targeting the new U.S. bank, and the Court invoked the Necessary and Proper Clause, validating the federal government’s creation of the bank and exempting it from the tax.

Overturned: This case is often used to validate the supremacy of the federal government over state governments and to give the federal government the power to use the Necessary and Proper Clause. Marshall explained that “the Constitution and the laws made in pursuance thereof are supreme. . . they control the . . . laws of the respective states, and cannot be controlled by them.”

Lochner v. New York

Date Decided: April 17, 1905

Chief Justice Presiding: Melville Fuller

Vote Split: 5-4

Summary: In 1895, the New York Legislature enacted the Bakeshop Act, which in part prohibited individuals from working in bakeries for more than 10 hours per day or 60 hours per week. 

In 1899, Joseph Lochner, owner of Lochner’s Home Bakery, was fined because he allowed an employee to work more than 60 hours in a week. Lochner was again fined in 1901, after which he appealed his conviction. Lochner based his argument on the 14th Amendment, which states that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” He said the New York labor laws were unconstitutional because they violated his individual right to contract labor. New York argued that the law was necessary to protect the health of bakers. 

Overturned: The Supreme Court invalidated the New York law, deciding it was a labor law attempting to regulate the terms of employment, and calling it an “unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract.”

Brown v. Board of Education

Date Decided: May 17, 1954

Chief Justice Presiding: Earl Warren

Vote Split: 9-0

Summary: In 1951, 13 parents filed a suit against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas, calling for the school district to reverse its policy of racial segregation.

Based on the precedent set in Plessy v. Ferguson, the district court ruled in favor of the board of education.

Overturned: In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court declared that state laws were unconstitutional if they established separate public schools for black and white students. The Court maintained that such a policy had a negative effect on minority children. 

This decision overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, which allowed state-sponsored segregation.

Engel v. Vitale

Date Decided: June 25, 1962

Chief Justice Presiding: Earl Warren

Vote Split: 6-1

Summary: In 1951, The New York State Board of Regents authorized a short, nondenominational prayer for recitation at the start of each school day. The 22-word prayer read, “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.” Parents of 10 students in New Hyde Park argued that such a prayer violated the Establishment Claus of the First Amendment, which reads that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”

The Supreme Court ruled that the prayer was unconstitutional. In the words of Justice Hugo Black, “We think that by using its public school system to encourage recitation of the Regents’ Prayer, the State of New York has adopted a practice wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause. There can, of course, be no doubt that New York’s program of daily classroom invocation of God’s blessings…in the Regents’ Prayer is a religious activity…”

Overturned: The Supreme Court overturned New York’s decision to allow these prayers in schools.

Gideon v. Wainwright

Date Decided: March 18, 1963 

Chief Justice Presiding: Earl Warren

Vote Split: 9-0

Summary: Clarence Earl Gideon was charged in Florida state court with a felony. On the day of his trial, Gideon appeared in court without a lawyer because he was too poor to afford counsel. Gideon requested that the court appoint one for him; however, according to Florida state law an attorney may only be appointed to an indigent defendant in capital cases. Gideon ended up representing himself because the court wouldn’t appoint him a lawyer, and he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. From his prison cell, Gideon appealed to the Supreme Court, declaring that his Sixth Amendment rights, as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, had been violated.

Overturned: In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court overturned Florida’s state law and ruled that state courts must appoint attorneys for all defendants who cannot afford counsel on their own.

Griswold v. Connecticut

Date Decided: June 7, 1965

Chief Justice Presiding: Earl Warren

Vote Split: 7-2

Summary: In 1879 the state of Connecticut passed a law banning “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception.” The law, however, was rarely enforced. But when Estelle Griswold and Dr. C. Lee Burton were arrested and fined for opening a birth control clinic in Connecticut, the Supreme Court heard the case. 

Griswold argued that the law violated the 14th Amendment, Section One. The court agreed that the law violated the Constitution. The ruling of this case established that the Constitution protects a right to privacy. 

Overturned: Griswold v. Connecticut overturned Connecticut state law and was the first time the Supreme Court held that marital privacy was something the Constitution protects. This decision would later form the basis of other landmark decisions such as Roe v. Wade.

Roe v. Wade

Date Decided: January 22, 1973

Chief Justice Presiding: Warren E. Burger

Vote Split: 7-2

Summary: In the early 1970s, Texas state law prohibited Norma McCorvey (alias Jane Roe) from having an abortion. She was a single mother and pregnant for a third time.

The Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional right to privacy extends to a woman’s decision to have an abortion. The ruling made it constitutional for a woman to have an abortion in her first trimester. 

Overturned: This ruling struck down individual state laws restricting abortion. Roe v. Wade is still one of the most hotly debated court decisions.

Landmark cases upholding federal law

Korematsu v. United States

Date Decided: December 18, 1944

Chief Justice Presiding: Harlan Stone

Vote Split: 6-3

Summary: Shorty after the Imperial Japanese Navy’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Executive Order 9066 authorized rounding up Americans of Japanese descent and placing them in internment camps throughout the nation. Fred Korematsu was one such citizen. He, however, openly defied the order and stayed in his home in southern California, arguing that the federal law violated his Fifth Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court upheld the decision of a federal appeals court and ruled that Koremastu’s personal rights didn’t outweigh what was perceived as necessary for the security of the nation at the time.

Upheld: The Supreme Court upheld Executive Order 9066, which authorized the department of the military to place citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps.

Miranda v. Arizona

Date Decided: June 13, 1966

Chief Justice Presiding: Earl Warren

Vote Split: 5-4

Summary: On March 13, 1963, Ernesto Miranda was arrested and interrogated for two hours, eventually signing a confession. At no time was Miranda told of his right to counsel or his right to remain silent. In court, Miranda’s attorney argued that Miranda’s confession should not be used because it wasn’t completely voluntary. 

The Supreme Court ruled that police had to follow certain protocol in order to protect a victim’s Fifth Amendment rights.

A typical Miranda warning includes the following: 

”You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to the police and to have an attorney present during questioning now or in the future. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you before any questioning, if you wish.

If you decide to answer any questions now, without an attorney present, you will still have the right to stop answering at any time until you talk to an attorney.

Knowing and understanding your rights as I have explained them to you, are you willing to answer my questions without an attorney present?”

Upheld: The Supreme Court upheld the Fifth Amendment.

Landmark cases upholding state law

Slaughterhouse Cases

Date Decided: April 14, 1873

Chief Justice Presiding: Salmon P. Chase

Vote Split: 5-4

Summary: In 1869, the State of Louisiana authorized a private company, the Crescent City Livestock Landing and Slaughterhouse Company, to control and oversee all the slaughtering of animals in New Orleans. The state was trying to solve the “sanitation nightmare” created by the practice of dumping animal waste into the city’s water supply.

Over 400 independent butchers united to sue Louisiana because the law banned any other slaughterhouse from operating in New Orleans.

The butchers felt their 14th Amendment rights had been violated. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Freeman Miller, “This statute is denounced [by the butchers] not only as creating a monopoly and conferring odious and exclusive privileges upon a small number of persons at the expense of the great body of the community of New Orleans, but it is asserted that it deprives a large and meritorious class of citizens — the whole of the butchers of the city — of the right to exercise their trade.”

The Supreme Court ruled that the butchers’ 14th Amendment rights had not been violated because the privileges or immunities clause extended only to rights of United States citizenship and not state citizenship. 

Upheld: This ruling upheld Louisiana’s ability to charter a private company to oversee the butchering industry.

Plessy v. Ferguson

Date Decided: May 18, 1896

Chief Justice Presiding: Melville Weston Fuller

Vote Split: 7-1

Summary: In 1890, the state of Louisiana passed a law requiring separate accommodations for blacks and whites on railroads, including separate railway cars.

Homer Plessy, who was seven-eighths white and one-eighth African American, was arrested in accordance with Louisiana’s Separate Car Act when he refused to move to a “blacks-only” railway car. At his trial, Plessy argued that the railway company had denied him his rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.

The Supreme Court ruled that the State of Louisiana was within its Constitutional bounds and based its decision on the separate-but-equal doctrine, which states that separate facilities for blacks and whites satisfied the Fourteenth Amendment as long as facilities were equal for both races. 

Although the Supreme Court ruling in this case never explicitly said “separate but equal,” that is the precedent set as a result of this case. 

Upheld: The Supreme Court upheld Louisiana’s Separate Car Act.