Significant Supreme Court Cases In The U.S.

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest federal court in the country. The president of the United States, with the support or confirmation of the U.S. Senate, appoints its judges for life terms. Although presidents can appoint judges that reflect their agendas, presidents serve no more than eight years. Federal Supreme Court judges may be on the bench until they retire, are impeached or until they die. This creates a potential imbalance of political thought, as there is just one chief justice and eight associate justices. Only federal statute can change that number of justices. U.S. Supreme Court decisions cannot be rendered according to personal bias of political thought. Decisions can only be rendered according to the U.S. Constitution and its precedent-setting case decisions–such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education–the latter directly affected by the former Supreme Court decision.

Self-Incrimination: Miranda v. Arizona

Ernesto Miranda, accused of rape, was arrested and taken to a Phoenix, Arizona, police station on March 13, 1963. He had been identified as the rapist and was interrogated, but not advised of his right to have counsel present during interrogation. At the end of the interrogation, Miranda signed a confession stating that the confession was voluntary, with no threats or promise of immunity. It also stated that the confession was made “ with full knowledge of my legal rights, understanding that any statement may be used against me.” Miranda was convicted of kidnapping and murder (not rape). He appealed his case because he had not been advised that he had the option of having counsel present during interrogation, yet the confession stated that he had been advised of his rights.

The ensuing Miranda Warning:

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney during interrogation; if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.”

is yet the topic of hot debate as lawmakers argue whether it makes enough difference in the 21st century because the more of a melting pot than ever and not everyone may understand their rights as read to them under the Miranda law.

Argued: February 28 to March 1, 1966

Decided: June 13, 1966

Citations: 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602; 16 L. Ed. 2d 694; 1966 U.S. LEXIS 2817; 10 A.L.R.3d 974
Chief Justice: Earl Warren

Separate, but Equal: Plessy v. Ferguson

Homer Plessy was a light-skinned Louisiana black man who agreed to break the law and to be arrested to challenge the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act, one of the Jim Crow laws. The law mandated that separate train cars were required for blacks and whites within the state of Louisiana. The Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law was a group of New Orleans black professionals who decided to challenge the constitutionality of this law. Plessy was born of racially mixed heritage and raised in Louisiana. This made him the perfect foil to the law, so the group asked Plessy to sit in a railcar designated for whites only. After his arrest, he was released on a $500 bond. Plessy’s attorney, Albion Tourgee, a white lawyer from New York, argued the case and lost. The Supreme Court held that it was constitutional to have “separate, but equal” facilities for blacks and whites within the state of Louisiana. Brown v. Board of Education overturned the decision in 1954. Today, the intersection of the two streets where Plessy refused to move to the segregated railcar is a park bearing his name.

Argued: April 13, 1896

Decided: May 18, 1896

Citations: 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138; 41 L. Ed. 256; 1896 U.S. LEXIS 3390
Chief Justice: Melville Fuller

Slaves and Citizenship: Dred Scott v. Sandford

The Dred Scott case brought the issues of slavery to the national arena. Dred Scott was a slave who previously lived in free states and territories of the United States, but moved to the slave state of Missouri. He sued the state for his freedom. After a decade in the lower courts, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Roger Taney, who advocated and supported slavery, heard the case and ruled that since Scott was black, that he was not afforded the same constitutional rights as the white man because he was not a citizen and had no right to sue as a citizen. The Dred Scott case was a pivotal issue in Abraham Lincoln’s bid for the presidency and led to the abolition of slavery in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, better known as the Emancipation Proclamation.

Argued: February 11 to 14, 1856

Reargued: December 15 to 18, 1856

Decided: March 6, 1857

Citations: 60 U.S. 393, 19 Howard 393; 15 L. Ed. 691; 1856 WL 8721; 1857 U.S. LEXIS 472
Chief Justice: Roger B. Taney

Civil Rights: Brown v. Board of Education

Linda Brown’s father, Oliver Brown, decided that his daughter should not have to walk a mile to a “black” school when a “white” school was just seven blocks from home. So he went to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for help to challenge the public school laws of segregation. Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded that segregation, although separate, was not equal, and that the plaintiffs (the Browns) were “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Although Brown v. Board of Education did not abolish segregation in restrooms or restaurants, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to abolish public school segregation overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision that separate, but equal was constitutional. Although public schools are desegregated in the United States today, many public schools remain inferior in predominantly black areas. This is mostly due to economics, not segregation.

Argued: December 9, 1952

Reargued: December 8, 1953

Decided: May 17, 1954

Citations: 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686; 98 L. Ed. 873; 1954 U.S. LEXIS 2094; 53 Ohio Op. 326; 38 A.L.R.2d 1180
Chief Justice: Earl Warren