The Top 20 Supreme Court Cases to Know


Quick Summary

Outcome/Historical Significance


Marbury v. Madison(1803)*

Appointment of midnight justices by John Adams rejected by Jefferson. Supreme Court must decide constitutionality of Judiciary Act.

John Marshall declares Judiciary Act unconstitutional The Supreme Court has the right of Judicial Review.

Impact of Marshall Court

Judicial v. Executive and Congressional Power

Judicial Review/Separation of powers

McCulloch v. Maryland(1819)*

Maryland attempts to tax the National Bank of the United States.Court must decide whether Bank is legitimate under the elastic clause and whether Maryland can tax it.

John Marshall declares "the power to tax is the power to destroy." The Supremacy Clause of the Constitution prohibits state taxation of a federal institution.

Supremacy vs State Rights; Elastic Clause

Judicial Review; Federalism

Gibbons v. Odgen(1824)*

Ogden receives exclusive right from New York to use Steam boat to navigate in New York and to N.J. Gibbons gets right from Congress.

John Marshall declares that Congress has the exclusive authority to regulate Interstate Commerce, especially when it involves a"stream of commerce."

Interstate Commerce Clause (Art. I, Sect.8) vs States Rights

Judicial Review/Federalism

Worcester v Georgia (1838)

Worcester, a minister did not get a license from Georgia to do missionary work with the Cherokee nation residing in Georgia.

The court ruled that only the United States had the authority to make treaties and regulations with Native Americans. The decision opened the door for Jackson to enforce the Indian Removal Act.

Article I treaty power of Congress vs Tenth Amendment police Reserved Power of Georgia.

Native Americans/Manifest Destiny/Rights of Ethnic Group/Power of National Government

Dred Scott v Sanford (1857)*

Dred Scott was a slave who was brought into free Territory as defined by the Missouri Compromise.

The Supreme Court declared that slaves were property and as such were not protected by the Constitution. It also declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional

Article III citizenship rights vs Fifth Amendment property rights.

Civil War causes/ Federalism/Equality/Rights of Ethnic Groups

Munn v Illinois (1877)*

Illinois regulated grain warehouse and elevator rates by establishing maximum rates for their use because of pressure from farmers association known as the Granger movement.

Illinois was allowed to regulate the railroad monopoly because "it was in the public interest."

Fourteenth Amendment property rights of the railroad owners vs the Tenth Amendment reserved police power of Illinois.Rise of Industry/ Monopolies/ Granger Movement/Property Rights

Plessy v Ferguson (1896)*


The state of Louisiana enacted a law that required separate railway cars for blacks and whites. In 1892, Homer Adolph Plessy--who was seven-eighths Caucasian--took a seat in a "whites only" car of a Louisiana train. He refused to move to the car reserved for blacks and was arrested

The Supreme Court ruled that the "separate but equal" provision of the Louisiana law was constitutional. The case established this principle of segregation until it was overturned in 1954.

Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause vs Louisiana's Tenth Amendment Reserved power right to legislate.

Equality/ Federalism/Jim Crow/

Schenk v U.S. (1919)*

Schenck was charged with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act by attempting to cause insubordination in the military and to obstruct recruitment.

The Court ruled that by obstructing the process in which people would be recruited or register for the armed forces, Debs did violate the act. The "clear and present danger" doctrine was established by this case.

First Amendment, free speech and assembly for Debs vs Congress' Article I ability to wage war.

World War I/Clear and Present Danger/National Power

Schechter Poultry Corp v U.S. (1935)*

Section 3 of the National Industrial Recovery Act empowered the President to implement industrial codes to regulate weekly employment hours, wages, and minimum ages of employees. Schecter was accused of violating those codes by selling "sick chickens."

Calling it, the court of "nine old men" FDR was furious that the the Supreme Court ruled the NRA unconstitutional because it gave to the president legislative power which the Constitution assigns to the Congress. After invalidating other New Deal laws, FDR proposes a court packing solution which the Congress rejects.

Fifth Amendment properety right of Schecter vs Article I Section VIII commerce clause right of Congress.

Great Depression/New Deal/FDR/Court Packing/Separation of Powers

Korematsu v U.S. (1944)*

During World War II, Presidential Executive Order 9066 and congressional statutes gave the military authority to exclude citizens of Japanese ancestry from areas deemed critical to national defense Korematsu remained in California and violated Civilian Exclusion Order No. 34 of the U.S. Army.

The Supreme Court ruled that the President had the right to issue the Executive order as Commander-in-Chief. In 1988 Congress passed a law giving $20,000 to all ancesters of Japanese-Americans who were put in these camps.

Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause, vs Article II power of the president.

Civil Liberties/Rights of ethnic minorities/World War II/Power of President in Foreign Affairs

Brown v Board of Education Topeka Kansas (1954)*

Linda Brown denied enrollment in an all white school near her home challenges the separate but equal policy of the Topeka school district.

In one of the most celebrated cases, the court struck down separate but equal and ordered integration in the nation's schools with "all deliberate speed."

Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause vs School's Tenth Amendment Reserve Power of education

Civil Rigths/rights of ethnic minorities

Mapp v Ohio (1961)


Dolleree Mapp was accused of harboring a dangerous criminal. The police searched her house without a warrant and found other illegal material which they used to prosecute Mapp.

The exclusionary rule was established by the Supreme Court. States were not allowed to introduce illegally obtained evidence in a trial.

Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments vs Tenth Amendment

Bill of Rights/Search and Seizure/Reserved Police Power of the States

Engel v Vitale (1962)

A group of parents and students challenged the New York State Board of Regents mandatory non-denominational prayer in school.

The Supreme Court decided that the prayer violated the Separation of Church and State.

First Amendment Establishment Clause and Fourteenth Amendment v First Amendment Free Exercise Clause and Tenth Amendment.

Bill of Rights/Separation of Church and State

Gideon v Wainwright (1963)*

Gideon was accused of a felony by Florida and did not have attorney representation because he could not afford one.

Based on his "pauper" appeal to the Supreme Court, it decided that regardless of the crime, Gideon had the right to an attorney.

Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments vs 10th Amendment

Bill of Rights/Due Process/ Right to an attorney

Miranda v Arizona (1966)*

Ernesto Miranda was arrested, interrogated and confessed to rape without the police informing him of his right to remain silent or have an attorney after his arrest.

One of the most important cases decided by the Supreme Court, it directed police to give "Miranda Warnings" immediately after a person is arrested.

Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amenmends vs Tenth Amendment

Bill of Rights/Due Process/Right against self-incrimination/Right to an attorney vs Police Power

Tinker v Des Moines School District (1969)

Three public school students wore black arm bands to school to protest the Vietnam War. Principals in their school district had prohibited the wearing of armbands on the ground that such conduct would provoke a disturbance, so the students were suspended from school.

The court declared that "student rights do not stop at the schoolhouse gates." The wearing of black arm bands was protected by the Constitution. Students enjoy protection of the Bill of Rights unless their actions materially disrupt the educational environment.

First Amendment free speech, Fourteenth Amendment vs Tenth Amendment education as a reserved power.

Bill of Rights/Civil Liberties

Vietnam War

New York Times v U.S. (1971)

The "Pentagon Papers Case," The Nixon Administration attempted to prevent the N Y T and Wash. Post from publishing materials from a classified Defense Department study regarding the history of United States activities in Vietnam.

The Court ruled that the papers did not violate national security and therefore the newspapers had the right to publish them. The result was an embarassment for the President of the United States.

First Amendment, free speech vs Article II power of the president.

ColdWar/Vietnam/Freedom of the Press

Roe v Wade (1973)*

A Texas woman has an abortion violating Texas state law. Abortion at the time is legal in some states and illegal in others.

A constitutional right to an abortion is established, though the court laid down a trimester criteria in determining whether states can impose restrictions

Fourth amendment right to privacy, ninth amendment rights not listed in the Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment vs the Tenth Amendment health reserved power of the states.

The rights of women/contemporary social issues

U.S. v Nixon (1974)

President Nixon asserted that he was immune from the subpoena claiming "executive privilege," which is the right to withhold information from other government branches to preserve confidential communications within the executive branch or to secure the national interest and refused to hand over Watergate related tapes.

The Court ruled unanimously that the president had to turn over the tapes and that executive privilege could not be invoked in a potential criminal activitiy. Shortly after turning over the tapes, Nixon resigned from office.

Article I power of Congress v Article II power of the president

Separation of Powers/Watergate

New Jersey v TLO (1985)

TLO was accused of smoking in the bathroom. The principal searches her pocketbook without her permission and discovers cigarettes as well as other illegal substances.

Court rules that schools can search students with reasonable cause. This case lessens the Tinker doctrine and gives school officials greater lattitude in disciplining students

Tenth Amendment reserved power of education vs Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments

Bill of Rights/Due Process/Search and Seizure vs police and education reserved power of the school.



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