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The Most Important Supreme Court Cases

Updated October 2, 2020 1.6k votes 390 voters 46.8k views15 items

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. 

  • Brown v. Board of Education
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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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    • 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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      • 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?"
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        • Gideon v. Wainwright
          Photo: Donn Dughi / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
          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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