The Most Controversial Supreme Court Cases

Here is a list of some of the most controversial Supreme Court cases in history. These US Supreme Court decisions, some of which date back more than 100 years, include rulings on such hot button issues as abortion, civil rights, states' rights, gay rights, and election laws. These decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States are considered by many to be among the most controversial. If you don't see a case on this list, feel free to add it in the comments section below.

The US Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, so many of its decisions will be controversial as they are final and apply to everyone in the country. When dealing with issues such as abortion, there will always be a large divide between the people - and many different views will clash. When the government makes a final decision on important issues, there will be controversy as it's impossible to make everyone happy. But that is what the Supreme Court is supposed to do. We pick the best judges to sit and listen to cases and make the right decisions based on our laws and customs.

Not everybody will agree with all of the decisions, so let's take a look at the most controversial decisions made by the US Supreme Court.

  • Dred Scott v. Sandford
    Video: YouTube

    In 1857, the US Supreme Court's decision in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case essentially established that all African-Americans, whether slaves or free, did not have Constitutional rights. Slave Dred Scott had sued, claiming he should be freed because the family he served had taken him to the free state of Illinois.

  • Plessy v. Ferguson
    Video: YouTube

    The Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling in 1896 essentially held that "separate but equal" was okay, establishing the idea that segregation was constitutional. States could, legally, offer separate facilities (in this case, train seats) to blacks and whites, provided that the facilities were identical.

    This post-Reconstruction challenge to segregation was only the beginning.

  • Roe v. Wade
    Video: YouTube
    491 VOTES

    Roe v. Wade

    Roe v. Wade remains among the US Supreme Court's most highly controversial decisions. In 1973, the High Court ruled that a woman who chooses to have an abortion (in the first trimester) is within her constitutional rights to do so.

    This ruling essentially legalized first-trimester abortion - striking down individual state laws restricting it.

    In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, striking down legislation intended to limit abortion rights for women. A subsequent Supreme Court ruling in 2022 (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) overturned Roe v. Wade, however, and ended federal abortion rights protections. 

  • Brown v. Board of Education
    Video: YouTube

    The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision was certainly controversial. This 1954 ruling by the High Court essentially determined that it is unconstitutional for states to establish separate schools for blacks and whites. The ruling stated that segregation based on race in public schools was unconstitutional.

    This change set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement, as it abolished segregation in schools (though not elsewhere).

  • Windsor v. United States
    Video: YouTube
    252 VOTES

    Windsor v. United States

    On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court found the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional in the Windsor v. United States ruling. Justice Anthony Kennedy concluded that the federal government's refusal to recognize legal same-sex marriages imposed a "stigma," enshrined a "separate status" into law, and "humiliate[d]" a group of people. Kennedy deemed this unconstitutional, writing for the majority of Supreme Court justices in their historic decision striking down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. The vote was 5-4.

    With DOMA as the law of the land, married gay and lesbian couples were unable to receive more than 1,000 federal benefits that heterosexual couples were able to receive. Kennedy, along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, ruled that DOMA is unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment.

  • Snyder v. Phelps
    Video: YouTube
    243 VOTES

    Snyder v. Phelps

    In October of 2010, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the Snyder v. Phelps case. This case concerned the issue of public protests at funerals. Albert Snyder, the father of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, filed suit against the Westboro Baptist Church, led by pastor Fred Phelps. Snyder's son Matthew was dispatched in Iraq. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed at the young Marine's funeral, holding signs that said, among other things: "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "Thank God for 9/11."

    Snyder filed a lawsuit. In March of 2011, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church, upholding the group's rights to picket, and saying that the First Amendment (free speech) protects protesters in this case because Westboro's picket signs dealt with "matters of public import." Westboro continues to picket at military services and other high-profile memorials today.