Monumental Supreme Court Cases

List of Supreme Court Cases

Since Marbury v. Madison in 1803, the Supreme Court has had an influential role in determining the laws of the United States. It has preserved or struck down laws which have had enormous impact on the direction of the country. The following is meant as a comprehensive list of the most important cases argued in front of the Supreme Court. They include cases about race, religion, free speech, privacy, commerce, labor and the legal process that have been influential in shaping the national mood and tenor.


Judicial Review and Federalism

In 1803, the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison established that the Supreme Court had the power to review laws and distinguished itself from the executive branch. It is from this case that the Supreme Court derives much of its powers.

Other important cases which have a bearing on Federalism include:

  • Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee was the first case to test the Supreme Court’s authority over state law.
  • McCulloch v. Maryland determined that the powers of Congress extended to implied power and that states could not impede valid constitutional actions by the Federal government.
  • United States v. Wheeler determined that the Federal government did not have the authority to prosecute kidnapping and that freedom of movement is guaranteed under the constitution.
  • National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Company determined that parts of FDR’s New Deal were not constitutional and greatly extended the powers of Congress under the commerce clause.
  • United States v. Nixon was a very important case regarding the powers of the president and whether the president had a right to secrecy.

1st Amendment Cases

The first amendment is one of the most heavily debated of the amendments as well as one of the most far reaching. It contains the establishment clause, freedom of assembly, press and speech. The following cases will provide an introduction to different issues which the Supreme Court has ruled on.


  • Wisconsin v. Yoder established that a parent’s right to freedom of religion outweighed the right of a state to impose education on children.
  • McCollum v. Board of Education was a seminal case in the argument of the separation of church and state.
  • Wallace v. Jaffree was a decision to ban prayer in school after an Alabama law authorized teachers to set aside one minute for silent meditation or prayer.
  • Epperson v. Arkansas was an important case prohibiting states from banning teachers from teaching the theory of evolution.
  • Everson v. Board of Education ruled that the first amendment guarantee that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’ extended to states as well.
  • Schenk v. United States was an important case establishing that freedom of speech did not extend to speaking out against the military draft during WWI and established the ‘clear and present danger’ test.
  • Gitlow v. New York defined the scope of the first amendment by ruling that the fourteenth amendment extended the rights guaranteed in the first amendment to states.
  • Yates v. United States established what radical forms of speech were protected by the first amendment.
  • Brandenburg v. Ohio was an important free speech case that ruled that inflammatory speech, such as racist speech, is protected under the first amendment as long as it does not incite or be likely to incite action.
  • Texas v. Johnson struck down prohibitions that existed in 48 of the 50 states barring people from desecrating the flag.

Cases involving race

Throughout its history, the Supreme Court has made many decisions about whether or not discrimination based on race is constitutional.


  • Dred Scott v. Sandford was one of the earliest and most influential cases regarding race. The Supreme Court determined that Africans brought to the United States as slaves were not citizens of the country and were not protected by the constitution.
  • Plessy v. Ferguson was a landmark case where the Supreme Court upheld state statutes supporting racial segregation, establishing the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’.
  • Korematsu v. United States was another landmark decision upholding the government policy of interring Japanese American citizens during WWII.
  • Brown v. Board of Education was the watershed case along with Bolling v. Sharpe that ended segregation in the United States.
  • Regents of the University of California v. Bakke is a landmark case regarding the constitutionality of racial quotas and was instrumental in the debate about affirmative action.

Cases involving privacy

Although the word privacy is not mentioned anywhere in the constitution, beginning in the 1960s the Court began to decide cases about privacy and how laws may violate a person’s freedom.


  • Griswold v. Connecticut was the case which established that privacy was a right guaranteed under the constitution and that laws prohibiting access to contraceptives was unconstitutional.
  • Bowers v. Hardwick was an important court decision upholding a Georgia sodomy law intended to criminalize homosexual behavior.
  • Lawrence v. Texas was the case which overturned Bowers v. Hardwick invalidating sodomy laws meant to discriminate against homosexuals.
  • Roe v. Wade was one of the most controversial decisions in Supreme Court history, establishing that abortion is a right, striking down the Texas law forbidding it.
  • Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Cassey altered some of the provisions of Roe v. Wade, but upheld that abortion was still constitutional.

Cases involving criminal law

One of the chief functions of the court has been to determine whether rights have been violated during criminal proceedings and generally fall under the scope of the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and fourteenth amendments.


  • Mapp v. Ohio was a massively influential case that determined that evidence in a criminal case which was discovered by violating fourth amendment guarantees was inadmissible in court.
  • Katz v. United States was an important case determining the constitutionality of wiretapping extending fourth amendment rights to immaterial procedures.
  • Gideon v. Wainwright was an important case where the court determined that under the sixth amendment anyone arrested must have counsel provided.
  • Miranda v. Arizona is a landmark case in criminal law requiring the police to inform suspects of their right to an attorney and right to remain silent.
  • Furman v. Georgia determined that the death penalty must be applied with a degree of consistency and for several years there was a moratorium on the death penalty.
  • Gregg v. Georgia reaffirmed the court’s position that the death penalty was constitutional.

Other important cases

Not all of the Supreme Court decisions are easily classifiable and the following are some important cases which have occurred since the establishment of the constitution.

  • Fletcher v. Peck was the first Supreme Court decision to strike down a state law.
  • Baker v. Carr was an influential decision by the court on whether redistricting for the purposes of elections can be influenced by the Federal government.
  • Buckley v. Valeo is a landmark case involving the limits of campaign finance reform.
  • Bush v. Gore was the Supreme Court decision which determined the 2000 presidential election after recounting in the state of Florida had been contested.
  • Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee is a landmark decision in campaign finance reform making political contributions equivalent to free speech.

Further Resources

The following resources are databases with Supreme Court Cases and additional information.