Supreme Court Cases - Essentials


McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)


McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) is one of our most iconic Supreme Court precedents.  According to James Bradley Thayer – “The chief illustration [of Marshall’s] “giving free scope to the power of the national government.” Marshall’s signature nation-building achievement, seemingly an “infinite increase in the powers of the federal government.”  “Marshall’s capacious understandings of the Necessary and Proper Clause and the Commerce Clause were sufficient to accommodate the modern regulatory state.” Where federal and state governing actions collide, the national prerogatives are supreme.  In the case of a national bank, federal supremacy holds that federal operations are immune from state taxation.  The federal government, “though limited in its powers, is supreme within its sphere of action.”  Supports broad constructions of Congress’ Commerce Clause and Necessary and Proper Clause powers.  Federalism reflects the dynamic distribution of power between national and state government.  When distributing power between national, state and local governments McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) made one thing perfectly clear, the power given to the national government is supreme.




United States v. Lopez (1995)


The story of American government is the story of federal aggrandizement.  Seemingly our central government is getting bigger and bigger.  Are there no limits left?  Federalism was supposed to be the dynamic distribution of power between national and state government. In U.S. v. Lopez (1995) we see the United States Supreme Court standing up, surprisingly, for commerce clause limits.  In the Supreme Court case U.S. v. Lopez (1995) the national government was somewhat surprisingly reprimanded.  The Court’s admonishment was clear; Congress’ use of the commerce clause has its limits.  Congress may not use the commerce clause to make possession of a gun in school zone a federal crime.  We are a nation of law and not men.  Law sets limits.  There are certain policies that are outside of the purview of the national government.  We call this federalism.  Federalism reflects the dynamic distribution of power between national and state government. According to the Supreme Court, at least, the national government cannot do whatever it wants.  State governments still retain a certain level of sovereignty.  Do you disagree?  See you in court.


Engel v. Vitale (1962)


Provisions of the Bill of Rights are continually being interpreted to balance the power of government and the civil liberties of individuals. No better example than the emotional issue of our religious freedom as found in the First Amendment.  Religious freedom has been central to the American way of life.  “Our Constitution was made for a religious people,” said Founding Father John Adams.  So it should not come as any surprise to learn that when the United States Supreme Court got involved with religious life in America it would ignite a passionate response.  Though the First Amendment guaranteed, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” a Protestant hegemony assured certain customs and traditions would be commonplace here, even in the public square.  Individual state practices, as well, were not burdened by the religion clauses of the First Amendment until 1947 with the incorporation of the establishment clause in the case Everson v. Board of Education.  With the Supreme Court now empowered to police neutral religious practices in every local village and hamlet a bevy of plaintiffs emerged to challenge certain long held traditions.  One such tradition was the offering of Christian prayers in public schools.  Following the “wall of separation” precedent in Everson, the high Court ruled against any and all public school led prayers in the landmark case Engel v. Vitale (1962).  Few cases have solicited such emotionally charged reactions.  Hundreds of constitutional amendments were proposed to overturn the decision and calls for impeaching Supreme Court justices became commonplace.  In the end, the customs and traditions dutifully found in our public square would have to change.  Governments could no longer sanction religious activity.  “No law respecting an establishment of religion” would be tolerated.  And no prayer could change that.


Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)


The United States motto is simple, E Pluribus Unum, out of many one.  Our Founders envisioned “a plural society,” one that welcomed diversity but encouraged harmony when solving compelling state interests. But what if certain groups want to be exempt from the state’s compelling interests?  What if the pluribus loses its Unum? This was the issue in Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972).  A group of rural Amish, a traditional religious sect that eschews modern comforts, chose not to cooperate with Wisconsin’s compulsory high school education laws.  The Amish claimed it violated their First Amendment right to their “free exercise of religion.” Provisions of the Bill of Rights are continually being interpreted to balance the power of government and the civil liberties of individuals.  Compelling Amish students to attend school past the eighth grade violated the free exercise clause, the court argued.  The court emphasized our tradition of religious tolerance and the accommodation of religious differences.  Some have called the Yoder precedent the “high water mark of free exercise.”  The allowance of religious exemptions to other state laws, however, has not met a similar conclusion.  For instance in the case Employment Division v. Smith (1990) the court rejected the argument of two drug counselors who wanted to be exempt from Oregon’s prohibition to use peyote based upon their own religious practices.  Congress attempted to ameliorate likeminded disputes with the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993).  Disputes continue to vex our courts.  Our pluribus continues to test our Unum.  




Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)


Do students lose their rights when they walk through the schoolhouse gate?  This was the question in the case Tinker v. Des Moines (1969).  We know the First Amendment’s free speech clause has been given a “preferred position.”  But does it apply equally to kids sitting in classrooms?  The Des Moines public school system in 1965 said: “No.”  “Schools are no place for demonstrations,” the school system’s spokesperson said in response to five students who had been suspended for showing up to class wearing black arm bands in protest of the Vietnam War.  The Supreme Court would be called upon again to interpret the reach of the First Amendment.  Provisions of the Bill of Rights are continually being interpreted to balance the power of government and the civil liberties of individuals.  Public school students, as decided in this case, could wear black armbands in school to protest the Vietnam War. Though the court recognized the school’s right to maintain order within the classroom, “school officials do not possess absolute authority over their students.”  Furthermore the court argued, “Fear that something might happen, is not a basis for quelling all student speech.”  Finding the proper balance between order and liberty is never easy.  Be encouraged, however, that as you learn about your civil liberties they do not exist in theory alone.  You gain possession of your liberties today, right now, regardless of your age.  For this we can thank the courage of John and Mary Beth Tinker who decided to speak out against war while sitting in just another high school math class.




New York Times Company v. U.S. (1971)


New York Times Company v. U.S. (1971) is often referred to as the Pentagon Papers Case.  The Pentagon Papers were thousands of pages of “top secret” documents compiled by the Secretary of Defense that documented the murky narrative of the United States involvement in the Vietnam War.  One of its authors, Daniel Ellsberg, was incensed at what the Papers’ revealed and chose to “leak” the documents to the New York Times.  The Times began printing excerpts of the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971.  Almost immediately the Nixon Administration saw the exposure of the Pentagon Papers in the press as a threat to national security.  Ongoing peace talks in Vietnam, Nixon thought, would be jeopardized by this security breach in the American press.  The Nixon Justice Department requested an injunction against the Times to stop the presses.  The U.S. government had never before asked the courts to stop a national newspaper in this way.  Due to the immediacy of the injunction, the Supreme Court agreed to resolve this issue within a matter of days.  Provisions of the Bill of Rights are continually being interpreted to balance the power of government and the civil liberties of individuals.  The Court returned a 6-3 decision that upheld the power and authority of the First Amendment’s freedom of the press.  New York Times Company v. U.S. (1971) bolstered the freedom of press, establishing a “heavy presumption against prior restraint” even in cases involving national security.  There can be little doubt that a strong nation requires a free press.  Years later Daniel Ellsberg was asked if “leaks” to the press and subsequent attempts by the government to pursue prosecution in our day bear any resemblance to the Pentagon Papers Case? Ellsberg without hesitation responded by saying, “The parallels are very strong.” Each generation will see its freedoms challenged and tested. 


Schenck v. U.S. (1919)


Few would dispute that freedom of speech is one of our most valued civil liberties.  But does the First Amendment’s free speech clause give us license to say anything we want anywhere? The Supreme Court was called upon to answer this question for the first time in the case Schenck v. U.S. (1919).  At issue in this case was a law passed by Congress during World War I called the Espionage Act (1917).  The law made it illegal for individuals to obstruct the military draft and/or to spur disloyalty during the war.  Charles Schenck disapproved of this law.  He sent 2,000 pamphlets to recent draftees urging them to resist the war effort.  Charles Schenck was arrested and convicted in violation of the Espionage Act.  Schenck claimed that the law violated his fundamental right to free speech. Provisions of the Bill of Rights are continually being interpreted to balance the power of government and the civil liberties of individuals.  In this case the Court upheld Schenck’s conviction.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the Court, argued: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”  The First Amendment may not protect your free speech in instances where there is a “clear and present danger.” By allowing for an argument based upon “circumstance” the Schenck precedent settled little.  Deciding what is dangerous is anything but clear.


Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)


The Incorporation Doctrine was a game changer.  Little by little the Bill of Rights were applied to the states using the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  By incorporating or applying the protections found in the Bill of Rights to the states via the Fourteenth Amendment the Supreme Court solidified our civil liberties even more.  The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment has been interpreted to prevent the states from infringing upon basic liberties.  A prime example of the court using the incorporation doctrine can be seen in the case Gideon v. Wainwright (1963).  Clarence Earl Gideon was serving time in a Florida prison for a crime he claimed he did not commit.  At his trial he had no attorney.  He could not afford one.  The Florida constitution did not guarantee counsel and the Sixth Amendment guarantee to an attorney did not apply in Florida criminal cases.  Using the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause to apply the Sixth Amendment even in state cases meant Clarence Gideon would receive another trial, this time with an attorney.  Clarence Gideon was set free.  The case of Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) guaranteed the right to an attorney for the poor or indigent not only at the federal level but at the state level as well.  Thanks to the Incorporation Doctrine the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel now applies to everyone, everywhere.  The Incorporation Doctrine is a game changer.


Roe v. Wade (1973)


Few Supreme Court cases are as politically charged as Roe v. Wade (1973).  Our two major political parties continue to make Roe a clear dividing point in their platforms.  At issue in Roe v. Wade (1973) was a women’s right to choose an abortion during the first trimester without state government interference.  Bodily autonomy rights are not explicitly found in the U.S. Constitution.  Yet the Court in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) interpreted that the right to personal privacy was implicit throughout the Bill of Rights.  And using the incorporation doctrine the Court held the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevented states from infringing upon basic liberties, including the right to privacy. The right to privacy was now made explicit via a court interpretation. The Roe v. Wade (1973) opinion relied heavily on the Griswold precedent.  Roe extended the right of privacy to a woman’s decision to have an abortion.  “Pro-choice” and “Pro-life” groups continue to define our political landscape.  The issue of abortion has become a litmus test question for those seeking public office and to prospective federal judges.  Roe v. Wade (1973) reminds us that the incorporation doctrine has both legal and political consequences.  By giving more and more authority to our national courts our local governments have less and less to say about the kind of world we choose to live in.


McDonald v. Chicago (2010)


Little by little the Supreme Court has applied the protections of the Bill of Rights to the states using the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, over time, has been interpreted to prevent the states from infringing upon basic liberties.  Nationalizing the Bill of Rights, often called the Incorporation Doctrine, was first seen in the case Gitlow v. New York (1925).  In Gitlow the court incorporated free speech.  McDonald v. Chicago (2010) was the most recent instance of incorporation.  The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for self-defense is now applicable to the states.  Incorporation has broad implications for federalism.  With the McDonald decision attempts by local governments to legislate against gun violence has become more problematic.  For most of our history state and local governments, our “laboratories of democracy,” were able to experiment with various gun control measures.  More specifically state and local governments were able to tailor gun laws to address their own unique populations.  Now under the McDonald precedent gun laws must take into account the opinion of the Supreme Court.  The “right to bear arms” is one of our most familiar and defended individual liberties.  Even so gun violence continues to vex public policy makers.  In McDonald v. Chicago (2010) the court inserted the national government as the final arbitrator in this dispute.


Brown v. Board of Education, I (1954)


The decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) served as a pivotal catalyst in the formal dismantling of racial inequality throughout the United States.  The United States Supreme Court, utilizing the authority given in the Fourteenth Amendment, became an important agent for social justice.  Though it was not easy, even for the courts.  The Court had heard oral arguments in the case the previous term and the justices fund themselves divided.  A rehearing was ordered for the following year.  In the Fall of 1953, before rehearing Brown, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died.  With the appointment of Earl Warren as Chief Justice, those seeking an historic ruling in Brown found encouragement. Chief Justice Warren would ultimately be able to shepherd a landmark unanimous decision. In Brown the Fourteenth Amendment’s “equal protection clause” was used to support the advancement of equality in our public school system. Race-based school segregation violates the equal protection clause.  De jure segregation in public schools, practiced throughout the South into the 1950s, was ruled to be unconstitutional.  The Plessy precedent of “separate but equal” was no longer operative.  The Court ruled unanimously “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.  Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  As important and symbolic as these words were they would be met with resistance.  Remember the Supreme Court has no official arm of enforcement.  In many communities the Brown decision would fall on deaf ears.  In many places the new law of the land was not enforced.  Nevertheless the quest to live up to our creed of “equal protection” for all now found a friend in the United States Supreme Court.  The Court would be called upon again in Brown II (1955) to clarify how best to realize the impact of their words.  Undoing the shadow of systemic discrimination that had been in place since our founding would not be as simple as a landmark gesture by nine justices in 1954.


Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)


The impact of federal policies on campaigning and electoral rules continues to be contested by both sides of the political spectrum. Few cases have provoked more partisan bickering than Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010).  In contradistinction to the Tillman Act (1907), which prohibited corporate contributions to national political campaigns, Citizens United reconsidered this long-standing ban.  Political spending by corporations, associations, and labor unions, the court argued, is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.  Though direct contributions are still prohibited, corporations and other associations are free to donate unlimited sums to Super PACs.  More and more money has poured into our campaigns and elections.  Fat cats are back in the limelight swaying our political process like no time before.  Irrespective of the amount corporations now donate, the perception that big money quiets the voice of the typical voter has grown in intensity.  Trust in our electoral process now lags.  As long as both parties are able to raise and spend billions during each election cycle the call for reform falls on deaf ears. 



Baker v. Carr (1961)


The noted Chief Justice, Earl Warren, superintended a number of critical landmark Supreme Court cases.  Warren led in the outcomes of Brown, Heart of Atlanta Motel, Gideon, and Miranda.  Yet at the end of his life he claimed the decision in Baker was his most important case.  In Baker the U.S. Supreme Court entered into the “political thicket.” Baker v. Carr (1961) ushered in a redistribution of political power - as dictated by the Courts.  Previously held as “non - justiciable,” the Court opted to hear this Tennessee malapportionment case.  Malapportionment was a common practice that allowed for Congressional districts to vary in population. The Court, contrary to previous like-minded cases, implored state legislatures to refrain from reapportionment anomalies that violated Constitutionally guaranteed “equal protections.” The republican ideal in the U.S. is manifested in the structure and operation of the legislative branch.  In Baker the Court enforced redistricting based on the principle of “one-person-one-vote.” Amongst other things this case ensured that urban constituencies were represented proportionally equal to rural area constituents.  By entering into the “political thicket” the Supreme Court hoped to assure that our political process was truly “of the people, by the people and for the people.” 


Shaw v. Reno (1993)


The Supreme Court serves as the guardian of our republic.  The republican ideal in the U.S. is manifested in the structure and operation of the legislative branch.  For this reason the court, somewhat reluctantly, got involved with political questions in the landmark case Baker v. Carr (1961).  This has led to endless stream of cases involving congressional reapportionment and redistricting.  Each continues to stir wide debate. One such notable case is Shaw v. Reno (1993).  At issue in Shaw was the creation of majority-minority Congressional districts in North Carolina.  In 1991 the North Carolina state legislature created two such minority-majority districts out of their twelve total.  Even in the court opinion there was concern that “racial gerrymandering…for remedial purposes may balkanize us into competing racial factions.”  Nevertheless in a 5-4 decision the court upheld the two majority-minority districts.   Legislative redistricting must, O’Connor argued in the court opinion, be conscious of race and ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  At best the opinion appears muddled.  Nothing short of the rule of law, equal protection, and equal representation was at stake in this case.  Essential values in our republic were on display in the Shaw decision.  Though Shaw encouraged more questions than it answered it served, as some have said, to be a fitting “monument to Baker’s impact” – one man, one vote needed to be protected.  A true republic demands no less.


Marbury v. Madison (1803)


The United States Supreme Court was designed to be “the least dangerous branch.”  This did not last long.  Chief Justice John Marshall changed the Court’s trajectory in the case Marbury v. Madison (1803).  Marshall wrote in his opinion that the Court had the authority to “say what the law is.”  Marbury established the principle of judicial review empowering the Court to nullify an act of the legislative or executive branch that violates the Constitution. Judicial review allows the Court to do more than apply the law, its ultimate duty is to say what the law means.  Judicial review empowers the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of all law.  This newfound power bolstered the Court’s influence and prestige. Whereas it once was used sparingly, the U.S. Supreme Court now uses judicial review frequently.  The Court’s power in settling our most important political disputes is in no small way related to the decision in Marbury.  The design of the judicial branch protects the Court’s independence as a branch of government, and the emergence and use of judicial review remains a powerful practice.