The Most Important Supreme Court Cases Events
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The Most Important Supreme Court Cases

Quick: Can you name the most important Supreme Court cases in U.S. history? Yes? Well, can you explain them, in a nutshell, to anyone who asks? Impress your friends with your legal history knowledge by perusing this list of some of the biggest, most influential, far-reaching cases ever decided by the Supreme Court of the United States. Didn't see what you think is the most important case? Let us know in the comments!

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    This landmark case in 1803 established the United States' system of judicial review and directly contributed to the government's system of checks and balances of power. The Supreme Court addressed a legal fight involving William Marbury, who was picked (last minute) by outgoing President John Adams to become a District of Columbia justice of the peace. When Thomas Jefferson became the next president, he ordered his Secretary of State, James Madison, not to commission him. The high Court ruled that they really didn't have a say in this matter - but the case pointed out some very, very big loopholes in the system. As a result, the Supreme Court established so-called "judicial review" - offering the opportunity to revisit existing laws to see if they needed to be reworked.

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    1954's Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case saw the Supreme Court ruling that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students was wholly unconstitutional. The decision was instrumental - and, in part, gave birth to the Civil Rights Movement.

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    We all know that criminal defendants have the right to a defense attorney - but that wasn't always the case. In 1963, the Supreme Court addressed the case of convicted Florida felon Clarence Earl Gideon. After being denied free legal counsel, Gideon defended himself at his trial - and was eventually convicted. The high Court ruled that the conviction should be overturned, determining that all defendants have a right to counsel in order to get a fair trial.

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    Miranda Rights. We've all heard of them, possibly some of us have heard them read TO us. How did this all come about? Ernesto Arturo Miranda. He was arrested in Arizona and claimed that the authorities who questioned him didn't properly inform him of his rights - specifically, the right against self-incrimination and the right to an attorney if he wanted one. The Supreme Court ultimately sided with Miranda in 1966 - ruling that police didn't inform him of his rights. Today, all police are required to read the Miranda Rights to those they arrest:

    "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in the court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?"

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    The Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in the Roe v. Wade case remains one of the most controversial in U.S. history. Jane Roe (Norma McCorvey) was a pregnant Texas woman who sued the Dallas County D.A., saying the state law that made abortion a felony violated her rights to privacy. The Supreme Court ultimately decided that a woman's decision to have a first trimester abortion is within her constitutional right to privacy. State laws prohibiting first trimester abortions were abolished.

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    In 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that slave Dred Scott was not a United States citizen and thus, he couldn't sue for his freedom in federal court. Scott claimed that because the family he was with took him to a free state (Illinois, one that did not recognize slavery), he should be freed. The high Court said it didn't have jurisdiction over the case, which brought the issue of slavery even more to the forefront than it already was at the time. This decision was much larger than just one person - this ruling excluded all African-Americans, free or slaves, from having any Constitutional rights (including the right to sue).

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    In June of 1978, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that became the ultimate basis for affirmative action. Student Allan Bakke sued the University of California at Davis because he claimed he was denied admission to the school's medical program based on race. Bakke, who was white, argued that the school's admissions program, designed to increase quotas of minorities, was unconstitutional. The high Court ruled in Bakke's favor, saying that while race could certainly be considered as a factor in admissions, it couldn't be the sole factor.

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    In this 1819 case, the Supreme Court addressed a fight involving the state of Maryland's decision to tax the federal government-created national bank each year. And employee at the Baltimore branch, James McCulloch, refused to pay up - and of course, Maryland sued him. The Supreme Court heard McCulloch's appeal, and ultimately ruled that the U.S. Congress had broad powers to create a national bank. The ruling also stated that Maryland's taxing of the bank was unconstitutional.

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    The Supreme Court's 1974 ruling in the United States v. Nixon came amid the turmoil surrounding the Watergate scandal. Then President Richard Nixon's secret Oval Office-recorded tapes were subpoenaed by prosecutors, who hoped to prove that Nixon and his aides broke the law. Nixon refused to comply, arguing that he had executive privilege and did not have to turn over the tapes to anyone. The high Court ruled against him, the tapes were released and Nixon ultimately resigned from office.

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    The 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson concerned the idea of "separate but equal" in racial segregation. Homer Plessy was one-eighth black when he rode in a whites-only train car in Louisiana. The state had passed a law stating that all trains must provide "separate but equal" accommodations for whites and non-whites. Plessy was arrested. He claimed his arrest violated the Constitution, but the Supreme Court upheld the case, maintaining that segregation was constitutional.

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    In this landmark 1989 ruling, the Supreme Court addressed whether Republican National Convention protester Gregory Lee Johnson was within his rights in burning an American flag in protest over Ronald Reagan and his administration's policies. The Court determined that Johnson's action were protected by the First Amendment, as they were a form of symbolic speech.

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    This landmark 1824 Supreme Court case came about because of a major conflict over the States' rights to regulate commerce. The primary issue concerned whether New York State was right in granting exclusive rights to steamboat operator Aaron Ogden to navigate waters between New York and New Jersey. When another operator, Thomas Gibbons, began going the same route with his boats, Ogden filed a complaint. The case ultimately wound up before the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the federal government can determine rules of interstate commerce, thus, eliminating Ogden's monopoly.

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    Obergefell v. Hodges

    In 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that the recognition and provision of same-sex marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This historic ruling required all states to issues marriage licenses to same sex couples and to recognize same sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. Th Court voted 5-4, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing the majority opinion.

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    The U.S. Supreme Court's 1946 ruling in Korematsu v. United States remains controversial, even today. When California resident Fred Korematsu refused to be relocated, along with more than 100,000 other Japanese Americans, to internment camps, he was arrested. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered the internment camps, citing Japanese Americans as potential security threats to the U.S. during World War II. Korematsu sued the government, claiming his Constitutional rights (specifically, the Fourteenth Amendment) were being violated. In its ruling, the Supreme Court sided with the government, ruling that the internment order was about security - not racism. Korematsu was convicted. This conviction was later overturned in 1983 by San Francisco Federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel. She cited the government's supplying false information to the high Court as the reason.

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