Important U. S. Supreme Court Cases


Chisholm v. Georgia (1793). States fall under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, limiting the scope of a state’s sovereignty.

Marbury v. Madison (1803). The doctrine of judicial review allows the Supreme Court and federal courts to interpret the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824). Under the Constitution, the Court defines “commerce” as virtually every form of activity involving or affecting two or more states.

Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857). The Constitution excludes African-Americans as “citizens.”  Thus, African-Americans cannot claim the rights and privileges provided by the Constitution.

The Slaughterhouse Cases (1873). Only the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment safeguard both our basic rights (such as the right to live, work, and eat) and the Bill of Rights’ guarantees against state action.

Hurtado v. California (1884). Under the Fifth Amendment, a citizen’s right to due process includes an indictment or trial by a grand jury when applied to prosecution for a felony.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The “separate but equal” doctrine allows a state to regulate the daily lives of citizens solely on the basis of race.

Palko v. Connecticut (1937). The Court ruled that the Fifth Amendment’s protection against double jeopardy did not apply to state prosecutions. However, the Court later overruled this decision when it determined that the Fifth Amendment protects defendants in state court as well as federal court from being tried twice for the same crime.

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). Holding that a student may not be compelled to salute the flag against her conscience, the Court affirmed that the right of free speech under the First Amendment protects “both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all.”

Korematsu v. United States (1944). Concluding that the government’s need to ensure the safety of the country trumped personal liberties, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the government’s authority to order Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II.

Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing (1947). The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from aiding or promoting religion generally or one religion in particular, the Court held, stating for the first time that a “wall of separation” exists between church and state.

Youngstown Co. v. Sawyer (1952). The Court ruled that the executive branch has no constitutional authority to seize possession of private property, even if it is for public use during times of national emergency, because such authority is vested in the lawmaking powers of Congress.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In public schools, segregation based solely on race deprives a person of equal protection and due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Engel v. Vitale (1963). A state official cannot compose or require prayer in the public school, and students cannot pray during instructional time.

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963). The Court unanimously ruled that the Sixth Amendment requires a state court provide an attorney for a defendants who is unable to afford his or her own counsel.

Miranda v. Arizona (1966). A person taken into custody by the police must be warned that: (1) he has the right to remain silent; (2) anything he says can and will be used against him in court; (3) he has the right to the presence of an attorney; and (4) if he cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for him if he so desires.

Duncan v. Louisiana (1968). The Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the First Amendment and certain provisions of the Bill of Rights.

Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). The Court’s decision affirmed a student’s right to free speech in American public schools, stating in part: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Lloyd Corporation v. Tanner (1972). Reversing the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court, a 5-4 majority on the Court held that shopping malls may prohibit demonstrations on their premises since the First Amendment applies only to public, not private, spaces.

Roe v. Wade (1973). Without undue interference from the state, the right of privacy includes the right of a woman to have an abortion.

United States v. Nixon (1974). In criminal proceedings, presidential communications will be available to the prosecution where the courts determine that a need exists.

Santosky v. Kramer (1982). To terminate parental rights, the state must prove its allegations of parental neglect or misconduct by “clear and convincing evidence.”

New Jersey v. TLO (1985). Overturning the New Jersey state court ruling, the Court held that as educators have a responsibility to maintain order and safety in their schools, they do not violate the Fourth Amendment by searching students as long as they have a “reasonable suspicion” that school rules or laws are being violated.

Texas v. Johnson (1989) In a 5-4 decision, the Court found that burning the flag of the United States in protest is an act of protected free speech under the First Amendment.

Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health (1990). A mentally competent adult possesses the right to refuse lifesaving medical treatment and nutrition.

Employment Division v. Smith (1990). The Court held that the government may enforce laws that have the incidental effect of interfering with the ability of citizens to practice their religion as long as those laws are not intended to discriminate against any particular religion or religious practice.  Thus, although states have the power to accommodate otherwise illegal acts done in pursuit of religious beliefs, they are not required to do so.

Lee v. Weisman (1992). Public school officials may not sponsor formal prayer at graduation ceremonies.

Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). Refusing to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Court modified the legal test for restricting abortion by holding that state restrictions on abortion cannot pose an “undue burden” on the right to reproductive freedom announced in Roe.

Harris v. Forklift Systems (1993). Harassment occurs when the workplace is permeated with intimidation, ridicule, and/or insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive as to alter the conditions of employment.

City of Boerne v. Flores (1997). The Court affirmed its role as interpreter of the Constitution in a case or controversy and asserted that Congress violates the separation of powers when it attempts to interpret Supreme Court decisions through legislation.

Reno v. ACLU (1997). The First Amendment right of free expression applies to speech or the Internet, and, thus, government cannot seek to regulate it without a compelling interest in doing so.

Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000) The Court ruled that the Boy Scouts could prohibit homosexual adults from serving as leaders as part of any private organizations constitutional right to freedom of association.

Carhart v. Stenberg (2000). The Court struck down a Nebraska ban on “partial-birth abortion” procedures, finding that the state posed an “undue burden” on access to abortion in the second trimester.

Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001). The Court ruled that officials who permit community uses of school facilities for public meeting purposes, including religious assembly, do not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Atkins v. Virginia (2002). The Court held that the state execution of the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban against “cruel and unusual punishment.”  In making this decision, the Court concluded that much had changed in American society since its 1989 ruling in Penry v. Lynaugh that executing the mentally retarded did not violate the Eighth Amendment.

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002). The Court ruled that school voucher programs designed to foster educational choices do not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as long as they are entirely neutral towards religion.

Gratz v. Bollinger (2003). The Court determined that the University of Michigan’s use of race in its freshman admissions policy violated the Equal Protection Clause.

Lawrence v. Texas (2003). In reversing a Texas court ruling, the Court overruled its previous decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, holding that a Texas statute prohibiting certain sexual acts—namely those between same-sex partners—violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Scheidler v. National Organization for Women (2003). The Court held that anti-abortion demonstrators did not commit extortion by engaging in a campaign to shut down abortion clinics using various protesting methods, thus not violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

Virginia v. Black (2003). The Court held that a state may ban cross burning carried out with the “intent to intimidate” without violating the First Amendment. However, the act of cross burning itself was held to be insufficient evidence from which to infer “intent to intimidate.”

Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004). The Court ruled that although the federal government may detain unlawful enemy combatants, detainees who are U.S. citizens must be afforded their constitutional right to challenge their detention before an impartial judge. 

Locke v. Davey (2004). The Court ruled that the state of Washington could deny a student the right to use a state-issued scholarship to pursue a devotional theology degree without violating the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Cutter v. Wilkinson (2005). The Court held that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was a constitutional act by Congress to require state prisons that accept federal funds to accommodate the religious beliefs of prisoners.

Kelo v. City of New London (2005). The Court held that it was permissible for the government to use its power of eminent domain to take an individual’s private property, including residential property, in order to transfer that property to another for economic development purposes.

Roper v. Simmons (2005). The Court ruled that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid the state execution of offenders who were under the age of 18 when they committed their crimes. 

Van Orden v. Perry (2005). The Court concluded that a Ten Commandments monument situated on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol did not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion because the monument was situated with many other historical symbols which, like the Decalogue, represent America’s history and tradition.

Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006). The Court ruled that public employees do not enjoy full First Amendment protection for statements they make during the course of their official duties.

Gonzales v. O Centro Espírita Beneficente União do Vegetal (2006). The Court essentially upheld the constitutionality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the federal government from interfering with the free exercise of religion unless it is the least restrictive means to satisfy a compelling government interest. In applying RFRA, the Court held that prosecuting a small religious sect for the sacramental use of an illegal hallucinogenic tea exceeded the government’s authority to restrict religious practice.

Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006). The Court ruled that enemy combatants captured during war must be afforded basic due process rights, including access to a fair hearing and a meaningful opportunity to confront accusers and challenge evidence brought against them.

Georgia v. Randolph (2006). The Court held that without a search warrant, under the Fourth Amendment, police may not search a house where one resident consents to the search while another resident objects.

Gonzales v. Carhart (2007). The Court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, which criminalizes any person who knowingly performs a partial-birth abortion and thereby kills a human fetus. The Supreme Court held that the Act did not impose an undue burden on the due process right of women to obtain an abortion.

Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008). The Court ruled that, under the Eight Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, a state may not impose the death penalty on a person convicted of raping a child. The Court also ruled that for crimes that do not result in the death of the victim, the Eight Amendment limits the death penalty to crimes against the state such as espionage and treason.

Boumediene v. Bush (2008). The Court ruled that detainees held at Guantanamo Bay are not barred from seeking habeas corpus or invoking the Suspension Clause even though they were (1) designated as enemy combatants, (2) not U.S. citizens, and (3) not physically present in the United States.  The Court ruled that the substitute judicial procedures that applied to the detainees spelled out in the Detainee Treatment Act were constitutionally inadequate.

District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). The Court ruled that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution protects an individual's right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes in parcels of federal property where some State laws do not apply, such as self-defense within the home.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) In a controversial 5-4 decision the Court held that corporations and unions may use their general treasury funds to support electioneering messages- and that no legal limits may be placed on such expenditures.

McDonald v. Chicago (2010). The Court expanded the scope of the decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, ruling that the right of an individual to "keep and bear arms" protected by the Second Amendment applies also to the states.

Snyder v. Phelps (2011). The Court ruled that noxious, highly offensive protests conducted outside solemn military funerals are protected by the First Amendment when the protests take place in public and address matters of public concern.

Kentucky v. King (2011). The Court found that the exigent circumstances (emergency conditions) rule applies when the police do not create the exigency by engaging in or threatening to engage in conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment.