The United States is a litigious society that revels on high profile and controversial court cases. Remember the O. J. Simpson double murder case in 1995, when the entire country seemed to have stopped to listen to the verdict? And how it was talked about for weeks to follow as the entire population was divided practically along racial lines?
Our nation’s courts have been deciding cases for over 200 years now. There have been hundreds of famous landmark cases that have inspired and even redefined the way our country is governed. Liberties and rights have been secured and protected because of these cases.
Here then is a list of the top ten most famous court cases in the United States. These are cases that have created impacts still being felt until today.
1. Brown v. Board of Education
In 1954, America was still a society divided along racial lines. Even schools were divided into those catering to either white or colored students. Oliver Brown of Topeka in Kansas believed it to be in violation of his 14th Amendment right to Equal Protection. He brought a case against the Board of Education to the court. White segregationists argued that, while they may go to different schools, the fact that they have similar buildings, accessibility and subjects mean that colored students were getting an education equal to that received by white students; separate but equal, in other words. The plaintiffs argued, however, that the fact that it was separated meant that there was a difference and unless remedied, they would never be equal. The Supreme Court sided with Brown and declared school segregation as unconstitutional.
2. Dred Scott v. Sandford
In probably the most infamous decision of the court, the 1857 case was a landmark in the fight for equality and abolition of slavery. Dred Scott was a slave purchased in Missouri. His owners, however, moved to Illinois and Wisconsin, both free states that prohibited slavery. Along the way, Scott was rented out several times by his owner. When the owner finally returned to Missouri, which allowed slavery, Scott sued on the grounds that he should be considered a free man because he had lived in Illinois and Wisconsin. Amazingly, however, the court ruled that slaves were not citizens and could not bring a case to court. It also ruled that slaves were private properties who could not be taken away from the owners without due process. The decision was one of the reasons that led to Civil War.
3. Gibbons v. Ogden
Aaron Ogden was an investor with a steamship company that monopolized New York’s waterways as granted to it by state law. Thomas Gibbons wanted to use the same waterways as granted to him by a federal coasting license. State and federal regulations collided, and Gibbons bought a case against Ogden in 1824. The court ruled in favor of Gibbons and decided that federal clauses should always take precedence over state laws.
4. Gideon v. Wainwright
In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested in Florida after being tagged in a burglary case. He was forced to defend himself because he could not afford a lawyer and after a judge refused to appoint one to defend him. After being sentenced to state prison, Gideon sued because he felt his rights were violated. The court sided with him, deciding that the 6th Amendment required courts to appoint an attorney to a defendant who cannot afford one.
5. Marbury v. Madison
When John Adams was serving out the remaining days of his presidency before the assumption of Thomas Jefferson to power in 1801, he appointed William Marbury as Justice of the Peace. Marbury’s papers were not delivered, however, as Jefferson ordered his Secretary of State James Madison to sit on it. Marbury asked the court to compel Madison to deliver his appointment papers. While the court agreed that Marbury had a right to have his papers delivered, it also ruled that it could not compel Madison to do so. It held that the law that allowed Marbury to sue was in itself unconstitutional because Congress could not extend a court’s jurisdiction beyond what the Constitution provided. This case defined the boundary between the executive and judicial branches.
6. McCulloch v. Maryland
Congress had created the Second Bank of the US, and Maryland wanted to tax it in order to stop its operations. The court ruled in 1819 that Maryland did not have that power as sovereignty lies with the US and not within the states. Congress was also granted the power to pass laws on interstate commerce, tax collection and financial credit under the Necessary and Proper clause of the Constitution.
7. Miranda v. Arizona
Ernesto Miranda was arrested in Arizona for kidnapping and rape. He sued, however, because arresting officers did not tell him that he had a right against self-incrimination and to a lawyer to be appointed if he could not afford one. The court agreed in 1966, and the Miranda rights have been institutionalized ever since.
8. Plessy v. Ferguson
Louisiana had a Separate Car Act that ordered rail companies to provide separate but similar accommodations for whites and coloreds. Homer Plessy was 1/8 colored and decided to sit inside the white car. He said that the law violated his 13th and 14th Amendments rights. The court decided against him in 1896, supporting the separate but equal argument, which lasted until Brown v. Board of Education repudiated it.
9. Roe v. Wade
Jane Roe challenged the constitutionality of Texas’ law criminalizing abortion. She sued Henry Wade, the District Attorney of Dallas, in an attempt to overturn the law. The court decided for Roe in 1973, saying that a woman has a right to privacy and to make her own decision. States, however, retain the right to regulate abortion depending on the pregnancy’s trimester.
10. Texas v. Johnson
Gregory Lee Johnson was convicted in Texas for desecration of a venerated object after burning the flag during the Republican National Convention in 1989. The court overruled the state court, deciding in 1989 that the action of Johnson was an extension of his 1st amendment right to free speech.
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