Historical Landmark Court Decisions

Supreme Court Landmarks

(US Courts.gov)

Case Name Facts of the case
Bethel School District #43 v. Fraser (1987) At a school assembly of approximately 600 high school students, Matthew Fraser made a speech nominating a fellow student for elective office. In his speech, Fraser used what some observers believed was a graphic sexual metaphor to promote the candidacy of his friend. As part of its disciplinary code, Bethel High School enforced a rule prohibiting conduct which “substantially interferes with the educational process . . . including the use of obscene, profane language or gestures.” Fraser was suspended from school for two days.
Board of Ed. of Independent School Dist. No. 92 of Pottawatomie Cty. v. Earls The Student Activities Drug Testing Policy adopted by the Tecumseh, Oklahoma School District (School District) requires all middle and high school students to consent to urinalysis testing for drugs in order to participate in any extracurricular activity. Two Tecumseh High School students and their parents brought suit, alleging that the policy violates the Fourth Amendment. The District Court granted the School District summary judgment. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that the policy violated the Fourth Amendment. The appellate court concluded that before imposing a suspicionless drug-testing program a school must demonstrate some identifiable drug abuse problem among a sufficient number of those tested, such that testing that group will actually redress its drug problem, which the School District had failed to demonstrate.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)This case was the consolidation of cases arising in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, and Washington D.C. relating to the segregation of public schools on the basis of race. In each of the cases, African American students had been denied admittance to certain public schools based on laws allowing public education to be segregated by race. They argued that such segregation violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The plaintiffs were denied relief in the lower courts based on Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that racially segregated public facilities were legal so long as the facilities for blacks and whites were equal. (This was known as the “separate but equal” doctrine.) 
Cooper v. Aaron (1958)The Governor and the Legislature of Arkansas openly resisted the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. On February 20, 1958, five months after the integration crisis involving the Little Rock Nine, members of the school board (along with the Superintendent of Schools) filed suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, urging suspension of its plan of desegregation. The relief the plaintiffs requested was for the African American children to be returned to segregated schools and for the implementation of the desegregation plan to be postponed for two and a half years. The district court granted the school board’s request, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed.
Engel v. Vitale (1962)The New York State Board of Regents authorized a short, voluntary prayer for recitation at the start of each school day. A group of organizations joined forces in challenging the prayer, claiming that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The New York Court of Appeals rejected their arguments.
Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)Clarence Earl Gideon was charged in Florida state court with felony breaking and entering. When he appeared in court without a lawyer, Gideon requested that the court appoint one for him. According to Florida state law, however, an attorney may only be appointed to an indigent defendant in capital cases, so the trial court did not appoint one. Gideon represented himself in trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. Gideon filed a habeas corpus petition in the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court’s decision violated his constitutional right to be represented by counsel. The Florida Supreme Court denied habeas corpus relief.
Goss v. Lopez (1975)Nine students at two high schools and one junior high school in Columbus, Ohio, were given 10-day suspensions from school. The school principals did not hold hearings for the affected students before ordering the suspensions, and Ohio law did not require them to do so. The principals’ actions were challenged, and a federal court found that the students’ rights had been violated. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court.
Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) In 1997, Barbara Grutter, a white resident of Michigan, applied for admission to the University of Michigan Law School. Grutter applied with a 3.8 undergraduate GPA and an LSAT score of 161. She was denied admission. The Law School admits that it uses race as a factor in making admissions decisions because it serves a “compelling interest in achieving diversity among its student body.” The District Court concluded that the Law School’s stated interest in achieving diversity in the student body was not a compelling one and enjoined its use of race in the admissions process. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that Justice Powell’s opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978), constituted a binding precedent establishing diversity as a compelling governmental interest sufficient under strict scrutiny review to justify the use of racial preferences in admissions. The appellate court also rejected the district court’s finding that the Law School’s “critical mass” was the functional equivalent of a quota.
Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988)The Spectrum, the school-sponsored newspaper of Hazelwood East High School, was written and edited by students. In May 1983, Robert E. Reynolds, the school principal, received the pages proofs for the May 13 issue. Reynolds found two of the articles in the issue to be inappropriate, and ordered that the pages on which the articles appeared be withheld from publication. Cathy Kuhlmeier and two other former Hazelwood East students brought the case to court.
Mapp v. Ohio (1961)Dollree Mapp was convicted of possessing obscene materials after an admittedly illegal police search of her home for a fugitive. She appealed her conviction on the basis of freedom of expression.
Marbury v. Madison (1803)Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams in the 1800 presidential election. Before Jefferson took office on March 4, 1801, Adams and Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, which created new courts, added judges, and gave the president more control over appointment of judges. The Act was essentially an attempt by Adams and his party to frustrate his successor, as he used the act to appoint 16 new circuit judges and 42 new justices of the peace. The appointees were approved by the Senate, but they would not be valid until their commissions were delivered by the Secretary of State. 
William Marbury had been appointed Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia, but his commission was not delivered. Marbury petitioned the Supreme Court to compel the new Secretary of State, James Madison, to deliver the documents. Marbury, joined by three other similarly situated appointees, petitioned for a writ of mandamus compelling the delivery of the commissions. 
McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) In 1816, Congress chartered The Second Bank of the United States. In 1818, the state of Maryland passed legislation to impose taxes on the bank. James W. McCulloch, the cashier of the Baltimore branch of the bank, refused to pay the tax. The state appeals court held that the Second Bank was unconstitutional because the Constitution did not provide a textual commitment for the federal government to charter a bank. 
Miranda v. Arizona (1966)This case represents the consolidation of four cases, in each of which the defendant confessed guilt after being subjected to a variety of interrogation techniques without being informed of his Fifth Amendment rights during an interrogation.
On March 13, 1963, Ernesto Miranda was arrested in his house and brought to the police station where he was questioned by police officers in connection with a kidnapping and rape. After two hours of interrogation, the police obtained a written confession from Miranda. The written confession was admitted into evidence at trial despite the objection of the defense attorney and the fact that the police officers admitted that they had not advised Miranda of his right to have an attorney present during the interrogation. The jury found Miranda guilty. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Arizona affirmed and held that Miranda’s constitutional rights were not violated because he did not specifically request counsel.
New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985)T.L.O. was a high school student. School officials searched her purse suspecting she had cigarettes. The officials discovered cigarettes, a small amount of marijuana, and a list containing the names of students who owed T.L.O. money. T.L.O. was charged with possession of marijuana. Before trial, T.L.O. moved to suppress evidence discovered in the search, but the Court denied her motion. The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court of New Jersey, Middlesex County found her guilty and sentenced her to probation for one year. On appeal, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress evidence. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, holding that the exclusionary rule of the Fourth Amendment applies to searches and seizures conducted by school officials in public schools.
New York Times v. Sullivan (1964)During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the New York Times published an ad for contributing donations to defend Martin Luther King, Jr., on perjury charges. The ad contained several minor factual inaccuracies. The city Public Safety Commissioner, L.B. Sullivan, felt that the criticism of his subordinates reflected on him, even though he was not mentioned in the ad. Sullivan sent a written request to the Times to publicly retract the information, as required for a public figure to seek punitive damages in a libel action under Alabama law. 
When the Times refused and claimed that they were puzzled by the request, Sullivan filed a libel action against the Times and a group of African American ministers mentioned in the ad. A jury in state court awarded him $500,000 in damages. The state supreme court affirmed and the Times appealed. 
Roper v. Simmons (2005)Christopher Simmons was sentenced to death in 1993, when he was only 17. A series of appeals to state and federal courts lasted until 2002, but each appeal was rejected. Then, in 2002, the Missouri Supreme Court stayed Simmon’s execution while the U.S. Supreme Court decided Atkins v. Virginia, a case that dealt with the execution of the mentally disabled. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally disabled (or “mentally retarded” in the vernacular of the day) violated the Eighth and 14th Amendment prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment because a majority of Americans found it cruel and unusual, the Missouri Supreme Court decided to reconsider Simmons’ case.
Using the reasoning from the Atkins case, the Missouri court decided, 6-to-3, that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Stanford v. Kentucky, which held that executing minors was not unconstitutional, was no longer valid. The opinion in Stanford v. Kentucky had relied on a finding that a majority of Americans did not consider the execution of minors to be cruel and unusual. The Missouri court, citing numerous laws passed since 1989 that limited the scope of the death penalty, held that national opinion had changed. Finding that a majority of Americans were now opposed to the execution of minors, the court held that such executions were now unconstitutional.
On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the government argued that allowing a state court to overturn a Supreme Court decision by looking at “evolving standards” would be dangerous, because state courts could just as easily decide that executions prohibited by the Supreme Court (such as the execution of the mentally ill in Atkins v. Virginia) were now permissible due to a change in the beliefs of the American people.
Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000) Prior to 1995, a student elected as Santa Fe High School’s student council chaplain delivered a prayer, described as overtly Christian, over the public address system before each home varsity football game. One Mormon and one Catholic family filed suit challenging this practice and others under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The District Court enjoined the public Santa Fe Independent School District (the District) from implementing its policy as it stood. While the suit was pending, the District adopted a new policy, which permitted, but did not require, student-initiated and student-led prayer at all the home games and which authorized two student elections, the first to determine whether “invocations” should be delivered at games, and the second to select the spokesperson to deliver them. After the students authorized such prayers and selected a spokesperson, the District Court entered an order modifying the policy to permit only nonsectarian, nonproselytizing prayer. The Court of Appeals held that, even as modified by the District Court, the football prayer policy was invalid. The District petitioned for a writ of certiorari, claiming its policy did not violate the Establishment Clause because the football game messages were private student speech, not public speech.
Terry v. Ohio (1968)Terry and two other men were observed by a plain clothes policeman in what the officer believed to be “casing a job, a stick-up.” The officer stopped and frisked the three men, and found weapons on two of them. Terry was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon and sentenced to three years in jail.
Texas v. Johnson (1989)In 1984, in front of the Dallas City Hall, Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag as a means of protest against Reagan administration policies. Johnson was tried and convicted under a Texas law outlawing flag desecration. He was sentenced to one year in jail and assessed a $2,000 fine. After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction, the case went to the Supreme Court.
Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)In December 1965, a group of students in Des Moines held a meeting in the home of 16-year-old Christopher Eckhardt to plan a public showing of their support for a truce in the Vietnam war. They decided to wear black armbands throughout the holiday season and to fast on December 16 and New Year’s Eve. The principals of the Des Moines school learned of the plan and met on December 14 to create a policy that stated that any student wearing an armband would be asked to remove it, with refusal to do so resulting in suspension. On December 16, Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt wore their armbands to school and were sent home. The following day, John Tinker did the same with the same result. The students did not return to school until after New Year’s Day, the planned end of the protest.
Through their parents, the students sued the school district for violating the students’ right of expression and sought an injunction to prevent the school district from disciplining the students. The district court dismissed the case and held that the school district’s actions were reasonable to uphold school discipline. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the decision without opinion.
U.S. v. Nixon (1974)A grand jury returned indictments against seven of President Richard Nixon’s closest aides in the Watergate affair. The special prosecutor appointed by Nixon and the defendants sought audio tapes of conversations recorded by Nixon in the Oval Office. 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. Decided together with Nixon v. United States.
Zelma v. Simmons-Harris (2002)Ohio’s Pilot Project Scholarship Program provides tuition aid in the form of vouchers for certain students in the Cleveland City School District to attend participating public or private schools of their parent’s choosing. Both religious and nonreligious schools in the district may participate. Tuition aid is distributed to parents according to financial need, and where the aid is spent depends solely upon where parents choose to enroll their children. In the 1999-2000 school year 82 percent of the participating private schools had a religious affiliation and 96 percent of the students participating in the scholarship program were enrolled in religiously affiliated schools. Sixty percent of the students were from families at or below the poverty line. A group of Ohio taxpayers sought to enjoin the program on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause. The District Court granted them summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Landmark United States Supreme Court Cases

(American Bar Association)

Case Name Facts of the case
Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) A New York state law gave Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton a 20-year monopoly over navigation on waters within state jurisdiction. Aaron Ogden and other competitors tried to forestall the monopoly, but Livingston and Fulton largely succeeded in selling franchise or buying competitors’ boats. Thomas Gibbons — a steamboat owner who did business between New York and New Jersey under a federal coastal license – formed a partnership with Ogden, which fell apart after three years when Gibbons operated another steamboat on a New York route belonging to Ogden. Ogden filed suit against Gibbons in New York state court, and received a permanent injunction. The New York state court rejected Gibbons’ argument asserting that U.S. Congress controlled interstate commerce. 
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) Dred Scott was a slave in Missouri. From 1833 to 1843, he resided in Illinois (a free state) and in the Louisiana Territory, where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. After returning to Missouri, Scott filed suit in Missouri court for his freedom, claiming that his residence in free territory made him a free man. After losing, Scott brought a new suit in federal court. Scott’s master maintained that no “negro” or descendant of slaves could be a citizen in the sense of Article III of the Constitution.
Schenck v. United States (1919) During World War I, socialists Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer distributed leaflets declaring that the draft violated the Thirteenth Amendment prohibition against involuntary servitude. The leaflets urged the public to disobey the draft, but advised only peaceful action. Schenck was charged with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act of 1917 by attempting to cause insubordination in the military and to obstruct recruitment. Schenck and Baer were convicted of violating this law and appealed on the grounds that the statute violated the First Amendment. 
Roe v. Wade (1973) A pregnant single woman (Roe) brought a class action challenging the constitutionality of the Texas criminal abortion laws, which proscribe procuring or attempting an abortion except on medical advice for the purpose of saving the mother’s life. A licensed physician (Hallford), who had two state abortion prosecutions pending against him, was permitted to intervene. A childless married couple (the Does), the wife not being pregnant, separately attacked the laws, basing alleged injury on the future possibilities of contraceptive failure, pregnancy, unpreparedness for parenthood, and impairment of the wife’s health. A three-judge District Court, which consolidated the actions, held that Roe and Hallford, and members of their classes, had standing to sue and presented justiciable controversies. Ruling that declaratory, though not injunctive, relief was warranted, the court declared the abortion statutes void as vague and overbroadly infringing those plaintiffs’ Ninth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The court ruled the Does’ complaint not justiciable. Appellants directly appealed to this Court on the injunctive rulings, and appellee cross-appealed from the District Court’s grant of declaratory relief to Roe and Hallford.
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) Regents of the University of California v. Bakke is a 1978 Supreme Court case which held that a university’s admissions criteria which used race as a definite and exclusive basis for an admission decision violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.