Roe v. Wade. Brown v. Board of Education. Citizens United. These Supreme Court cases are cited often by name in news articles and everyday speech but do you know what these (and other) landmark cases were really all about? Here are seven that reshaped America's understanding of the Constitution and became household names.
1. Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1857
Denied citizenship to all African Americans
On the eve of the Civil War, the Dred Scott decision dealt a painful blow to both free and enslaved African Americans. Dred Scott was born a slave in Missouri. Later, he was sold to a U.S. Army surgeon, who moved Scott and his family around to several free states and territories. After the surgeon died, Scott asked the man's second wife, Eliza Irene Sanford (whose name was misspelled in court documents as Sandford), to let Scott buy his freedom, but she refused. Scott sued in Missouri court and lost, since Missouri considered him a slave, never mind that he had resided in free territories.
Scott appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled 7-2 to deny Scott his freedom. In the landmark decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney said that first of all, Scott had no right to sue in federal court because he was black, and therefore not a citizen. Second, individual states didn't have the power to make black people free, because slaves weren't part of the original "political community" at the writing of the Constitution. Lastly, the Court ruled that Scott was Sanford's property, and could not be deprived by the government under the Fifth Amendment.
The Dred Scott decision emboldened slave-owning states to spread the practice into more U.S. territories and angered the opposition, strengthening support for the Republican Party. After the Civil War, the Dred Scott decision was overturned by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Scott was formally freed just a few months after the Supreme Court decision but he died a year later in 1858 of tuberculosis.
2. Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896
Upheld the "separate but equal" doctrine justifying racial segregation
In 1890, Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act requiring all passenger trains to provide separate and equal accommodations for black and white passengers, and forbidding people from sitting in the rail car of the opposite race. A civil rights group in Louisiana decided to challenge the constitutionality of the law under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and recruited Homer Plessy, who was 7/8ths white (and therefore still considered a "negro" in Louisiana) to take a seat in a whites-only car. He was arrested and the case made it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. (John H. Ferguson was the judge who ruled against Plessy in the Louisiana Supreme Court.)
The Court ruled 7-1 against Plessy, arguing that the separate but equal accommodations were acceptable under the 14th Amendment and did not imply that blacks were an inferior race. Justice John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter, believed that segregated public facilities effectively created a racial caste system, writing that "Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens."
With the Plessy decision, Southern states had a powerful legal precedent for doubling down on racial segregation, which remained separate and far from equal for another half-century. The decision was overturned by the next case on our list.
3. Brown v. Board of Education, 1954
Ruled that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional
Brown v. Board of Education is one of the best-known cases in Supreme Court history and deservedly so. The case, brilliantly argued by Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African American Supreme Court justice, was one of the first major legal breakthroughs of the Civil Rights era, and paved the way for full integration of all public facilities.
Oliver Brown filed a class action suit against the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, after his daughter Linda was denied entrance to any of Topeka's all-white elementary schools. Brown's lawsuit stated that the schools for black children were not equal to the schools for white children, which violated the "equal protection clause" of the 14th Amendment.
In a unanimous 9-0 decision authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court rejected the separate but equal doctrine as it applied to public schools. Even if the segregated facilities for black and white students were "substantially" equal, as the lower courts had ruled, the institution of segregation effectively branded young black students as inferior and denied them full participation and success in American civic life.
Even after this landmark decision, some states were slow to desegregate, with full integration not achieved until the early 1970s. But the Brown decision marked a paradigm shift in the Court's interpretation of the 14th Amendment and set a precedent that would be used to protect other groups against discrimination.
4. Miranda v. Arizona, 1966
Guaranteed basic rights to people who are arrested by the police
"You have the right to remain silent." Those seven words, now a staple of TV cop dramas, weren't part of standard police procedure until this groundbreaking Supreme Court decision. In Miranda v. Arizona, the Court had to decide whether the Constitution's Fifth Amendment protected criminal suspects from self-incrimination during police interrogations.
For Miranda, the Court addressed four separate cases in which suspects were arrested, interrogated for hours by police, and ultimately confessed to crimes without the presence of an attorney. The lead plaintiff was Ernesto Miranda who was arrested and charged with rape, robbery and kidnapping. He was not read his rights and confessed to the crimes during a police interrogation. Miranda had no lawyer present and a history of mental illness. Based on his confession, a judge sentenced him to 20-30 years. While he was in prison in Arizona, the American Civil Liberties Union took up his appeal.
In a tight 5-4 decision, the justices ruled that people in police custody have the same Fifth-Amendment right against self-incrimination as witnesses called to testify in court, and they also have a Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel.
In its ruling, the majority wrote that prior to any questioning, "the person must be warned that he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed."
Those words, now repeated during every arrest, became known as the "Miranda Warning" or "Miranda Rights."
As for Ernesto Miranda, he was retried and sentenced to prison anyway in 1966. He was released in 1972 but died in 1976 after a stabbing in a barroom fight. Ironically, his suspected killer was read his "Miranda Rights" and so never answered police questions. There was no conviction in Miranda's death.
5. Roe v. Wade, 1973
Legalized some types of abortion in the U.S.
Jane Roe was a pseudonym for Norma McCorvey, a pregnant woman in Texas who was unable to get an abortion because state law barred all abortions except when the mother's life was at risk. McCorvey's life was not in danger but she could not afford to travel outside of Texas to have an abortion. She claimed that the Texas law violated her constitutional right to privacy. ("Wade" referred to Henry Wade, Dallas County district attorney.)
The Court reviewed the case for two full years, weighing biological, ethical and religious arguments in addition to constitutional issues. Ultimately, the justices ruled 7-2 in favor of Roe, arguing that the Constitution's first, fourth, fifth, ninth and 14th Amendments combined to create a "zone of privacy" around certain personal decisions like marriage and contraception, and that banning all abortions violated that right to make a personal and private decision about whether or not to have a child.
Perhaps most controversially, the Court ruled that fetuses before the third trimester had no rights as "persons" under the Constitution or the law. The ruling allowed states, if they wished, to ban third-trimester abortions (because a fetus was "viable" at this point, based on medical advances) and to consider cases in which they could be outlawed in the second trimester, as long as exceptions were carved out to save the life or health of the mother. But the Court barred states from revoking a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester for any reason.
Before the case was decided, McCorvey gave birth and put her child up for adoption. She later changed her views on abortion and joined the "pro-life" side (though in a documentary released in 2020, McCorvey says she only did that for the money). This Supreme Court case remains one of the most culturally divisive ones in the U.S.
6. Lawrence v. Texas, 2003
Decriminalized homosexuality and expanded the constitutional right to privacy
In 2003, there were still 12 states in which it was a crime for men to engage in homosexual sex, and Texas was one of them. When police arrived at the apartment of John Geddes Lawrence in response to a weapons disturbance, they found him having sex with another man, Tyron Garner. They were arrested for "deviate sexual intercourse" under the Texas "homosexual conduct" law.
Lawrence appealed and the case landed before the Supreme Court, which had ruled in 1986 that the Constitution doesn't protect a homosexual individual's right to privacy because sodomy doesn't fall into the "zone of privacy" surrounding marriage and family decisions. In a 7-2 decision, the justices reversed that earlier ruling, arguing that the "due process" clause of the 14th Amendment extends to privacy in the home.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia angrily warned that striking down sodomy laws would lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage. He was absolutely right. In 2015, the court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that state laws barring same-sex marriages violated both the equal protection clause and the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.
7. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 2010
Allowed corporations and other organizations to pay unlimited amounts of money for political ads
Citizens United is a conservative activist group that produced a documentary called "Hillary: The Movie," which was critical of Hillary Clinton during her run for president. The company was barred from receiving corporate funding for the movie by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which aimed to stop the flow of "big money" into "electioneering communications," aka political ads. For a variety of reasons, including the First Amendment protection of free speech, Citizens United argued that the BCRA was unconstitutional.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court agreed. The landmark ruling recognized corporations, labor unions and other for-profit and nonprofit entities as having the same free speech rights as individuals to fund "independent political broadcasts" during elections. While Citizens United allowed unlimited corporate funding of independently produced political ads, it upheld the ban on direct corporate contributions to political candidates or their campaigns.
The Citizens United ruling ushered in the era of super PACs (political action committees) in American elections. Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited sums of money to advocate for or against political candidates, but they can't donate money directly to those candidates. Super PACs do have to report their donors to the Federal Election Commission. Critics contend that Super PACs are usually made up of a small group of wealthy individuals and corporations who can have an outsized influence on general elections.