Groundbreaking court cases are those that take into question the laws practiced throughout the nation or individual states for decades or even centuries. These cases tend to overturn legal decisions made with the creation of the Constitution and often lead to the creation of new laws or amendments.
1. Marbury v. Madison (1803)
Marbury v. Madison is considered to be one of the most important cases in Supreme Court history. This case was the first to apply the principle known as judicial review which gives federal courts the authority to overturn acts of Congress that are in violation of the Constitution. This case played an essential part in making the Supreme Court its own separate branch alongside the executive and legislative branches.
2. Plessy v Ferguson (1896)
In 1892, Louisiana passed the Separate Care Act which legalized the segregation of common carriers. A Black civil rights organization decided to respond by challenging the laws in court.
Homer Plessy attempted to protest the segregation laws on his own. To do so, he sat in the Whites only section of an East Louisiana Railroad train. Plessy was pale enough in appearance that he could pass for white, but he deliberately identified himself as a black man. He was arrested and jailed for violating the segregation law.
His defense lawyers argued on claims that the Separate Car Act violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. In 1896 The Supreme Court ruled the Louisiana segregation laws unconstitutional. This case set the precedent for “separate but equal” facilities for blacks and whites. This concept went on to be applied to many areas of public life.
3. Weeks v. United States (1914)
In 1914 Missouri, facilitating and participating in gambling activity was illegal. Mr. Fremont Weeks was suspected of being involved in distributing lottery paraphernalia through the mail. Federal agents raided his home, searched it and removed some of his personal documents. The agents returned a subsequent time and took more of his documents.
They did not show a search warrant either time. The materials they removed were used against him at trial, where he was convicted. The issue was whether having his property removed and admitted as evidence was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights protecting him from unreasonable search and seizure.
The Supreme Court decided Mr. Weeks had the right to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure and that the authorities were unlawful in searching, seizing and retaining his documents. This decision led to the Exclusionary Rule which prevented evidence seized as a violation of the Constitution from being admitted in trial.
4. Brown v Board of Ed. Topeka Kansas (1954)
As one of the most famous cases in American history, that of Brown v. Board of Education was actually five separate cases heard by the Supreme Court regarding segregation in public schools. It began in a Topeka, Kansas school district where a student had to walk miles to attend a black school while a white school was close by.
Her father, Oliver Brown, called on the NAACP to help his daughter get the best education she could. NAACP head Thurgood Marshall challenged the segregation laws on the grounds that they violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment stated that all citizens had the right to receive equal protection under the law. In response, the state claimed Plessy v. Ferguson set the precedent and the laws were to stand.
The Supreme Court ruled in defense of the Brown family and overturned the precedent set in the Plessy case. This decision helped spark the development of the Civil Rights movement.
5. Engle v Vitale (1962)
In the 1950s the New York State Board of Regents drafted and adopted a prayer they claimed was nondenominational. The Board recommended that the prayer be recited voluntarily by students in public schools at the start of each day.
A Long Island parent sued on the claim that this prayer violated students’ First Amendment rights. The school refuted that the nondenominational prayer did not attempt to establish or endorse any religion and thus did not violate the religious establishment clause.
The Supreme Court ruled against the school district and upheld the clause that considered prayer in school as unconstitutional.
6. Abington v Schempp (1963)
The year after Engle v Vitale, another case of religious practice in schools was brought to the Supreme Court. A Pennsylvania law required no less than ten Bible verses to be read daily in public schools. A father named Edward Schempp from the town of Abington sued the school district claiming this Bible study to be a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The District Court ruled in favor of Schempp, at which point the school district appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the District Court’s decision ruling that the prayer statute was unconstitutional.
7. Gideon v Wainwright (1963)
The defendant, a former convict, was accused of breaking into a poolroom. Gideon did not have the financial resources to hire his own lawyer and requested that the court appoint one to him. His request was denied on behalf of the fact that he had not committed a capital crime such as rape or murder.
He was forced to defend himself in trial and was convicted. While in prison, he wrote a plea to the Supreme Court and was granted a hearing. His case had attracted so much attention lawyers were eager to be a part of his defense, arguing his right to a fair trial was violated.
The Supreme Court upheld his position stating that all citizens must be provided with a lawyer in the event they cannot hire their own, regardless of the crime.
8. Miranda v Arizona (1966)
Arizona resident Ernesto Miranda was arrested and charged with the kidnap and rape of a local woman. He was interrogated for two hours after his arrest, having never asked for a lawyer. Upon interrogation he confessed to committing the crime. A lawyer who later represented him appealed his case on the grounds that his rights had been violated.
Miranda was acquitted of the charges and the Supreme Court ruled that all citizens placed under arrest must be informed of their rights before being questioned. Any evidence or defendant statements acquired before the citizen learns of these rights cannot be admitted in court. This case led to what is now commonly known as the “Miranda Rights” stated during arrest.
9. Epperson v. Arkansas (1968)
In another freedom of religion case, a statute in the state of Arkansas forbade teaches from providing curriculum based on theories that “mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.” One teacher, Susan Epperson, disregarded this law and lost her position.
The issues focused on where the statute violated the establishment clause provided by the First Amendment as well as the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court was called in to review the Arkansas statute preventing the teaching of evolution.
The Court ruled that the statute violated the First Amendment as well as the Fourteenth. According to the ruling, a state may not remove theories from the curriculum solely based on whether the ideas agree or conflict with the beliefs of particular religions. Such statutes that remove this information must require neutrality of religion.
10. Roe v Wade (1973)
Texas citizen Norma McCorvey became pregnant and desired to have the pregnancy willfully terminated. Texas state laws, and those of most other states, prevented women from having abortions. Under the pseudonym of “Jane Roe” McCorvey sued the state of Texas on claims that it violated her right to privacy by outlawing the abortion.
In her eyes, the law was forcing decisions upon her with regard with what to do with her own body. The state, in response, argued that the act of abortion was considered murder and there was an interest in the state to protect the life of an unborn child.
In one of the biggest decisions made by the Supreme Court in the 20th century, the Court ruled that laws prohibiting abortion were a violation of a woman’s right to privacy. This groundbreaking decision made it legal to receive abortions in all 50 states and is still being debated today.
Groundbreaking court cases shape American history and determine how citizens are able to exercise their personal rights as granted to them in the Constitution of the United States. They set the precedents for which citizens determine when those rights have been violated. The aforementioned cases are just a few of those that will be remembered as changing citizens’ rights for good.