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. 


  • 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.
    • Brown v. Board of Education
      Video: YouTube

      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.

      • Miranda v. Arizona
        Photo: Marine 69-71 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

        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?"
        • Roe v. Wade
          Video: YouTube
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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.