Some Supreme Court cases were truly landmarks

Published 6:20 pm Friday, September 2, 2011

Today, class, some history lessons in American government, a quiz on landmark decisions by the Supreme Court — decisions which changed the course of the country.

For thought and study, can you name at least three Supreme Court decisions that changed the nation?

Give yourself some time for thought before you read through the samples provided here and choices at hand. You may have some that differ from court historians.

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So here are some top picks, seven in all, not in any particular order, for historic discussion purposes only, and not from personal opinion, because folks in the South have definite opinions about the big S.C.

Close your eyes and think for a minute. Write down some answers.

Marbury vs. Madison

One of the earliest decisions of the court, Chief Justice John Marshall presiding — it goes back that far — involves judicial review. It establishes the concept that we mean to live within the constitutional rulings of the court, and we believe that judges trained in the law are best qualified to uphold and interpret the law. It gives the court the constitutionality to uphold all laws. This interpretation gave the court its power that it holds today.

McCulloch vs. Maryland

It began with the issue of the founding of a national bank after the war of 1812. The dispute was federal rights over states’ rights, and the concept of “implied powers.” Marshall was again in the spotlight, saying that the powers of the federal government are defined according to interpretation of the Constitution. It began the dispute over those who argued for a strong federal government, and those who argued for stronger states rights.

Scott vs. Sandford

This case is more popularly known as “The Dred Scott Decision.” The issue is judicial restraint, slavery and states rights. The factor was that judges must not allow personal opinions to enter into their judicial decisions. The court’s decision in this case did not consider blacks and other minorities to be United States citizens, thereby pushing aside moderates on both sides of the slavery issue, and provoking the onset of the Civil War.

Plessy vs. Ferguson

During the period following the Civil War, the United States gave legal justification to racial segregation — revealing that although the country was ready to abolish slavery, it was not prepared to accept the concept of “equal rights” for blacks — this decision underscored this fact. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were passed in order to provide equal protection of the law for all U.S. citizens. These amendments were largely undermined by the passage of state laws discriminating against blacks and other minority groups. The principle of “separate but equal” — invoked this case and it set a precedent for the ruling of segregation cases during the next 60 years.

Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan.

The Supreme Court continued to uphold racial segregation under the principle of “separate but equal” until the 1950s. At this time, they began to reassess whether or not “equal protection of the law,” as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, was in fact being carried out. Segregation in public schools — and the discriminatory nature of segregation — was questioned for the first time in this case. Segregation was pronounced demoralizing and injurious to the education of a black child. The concept that segregation was detrimental to public education established the grounds for winning the lawsuit, which proved to be an important achievement in the struggle for civil rights.

Roe vs. Wade

This decision involves personal privacy. The Constitution has provided for the Bill of Rights, but left succeeding generations of Americans the task of interpreting what those liberties meant. Our rights have most often been determined by court decisions, and the final word rests with the Supreme Court. Privacy, often defined as the right to be left alone, is an abstract concept until a live legal issue is presented. The issue here is: Should a woman have the right to terminate her pregnancy, or can the interests of the state government prevent such freedom of choice?

Miranda vs. Arizona

Basically and simply, the accused has a right to remain silent upon being arrested and has the right to an attorney in order to exercise their right against self incrimination.

Yes, there are others, depending on one’s view of American court history and legal rulings involving the separation of powers among the branches of government and the role of the states.

Did you name any of the above? Can you name a few more?

This material is not mine, but taken from an education group called Guidance Associates and their award winning DVD for schools and businesses.

Jim Smith writes a weekly column for The Post-Searchlight. He can be reached through his email at:, or by cell phone at (229) 254-2753.