U.S. laws are born out of the Constitution. Any law related to criminal, civil, or commercial matters, enacted at the state or federal level needs to be in accordance with the Constitution and its basic spirit.
The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788. Times have changed, and new laws have come in, but those laws can never contravene the Constitution.
From time to time there are legal scenarios where the U.S. Supreme Court needs to decide on the applicability of the Constitution to a law or verdict by the lower courts.
In the USA, experts consider many of these to be landmark cases. They involve an interpretation by the uppermost level of the judiciary about civil rights and similar issues, and act as important precedents.
What Is a Landmark Case?
Before we begin, here is a simple example of what might end up being a landmark case:
Say, a state passes a law that prevents rifles and shotguns from being sold. The U.S. Constitution via the 2nd Amendment allows every citizen to own firearms.
It is a Constitutional right, but the type of gun is not mentioned in the Constitution, and is open to interpretation. So, a state may be within its rights to prescribe that any gun with barrel length exceeding six inches cannot be owned by anyone except police officers.
If such a law was enacted by a state, it might come before the Supreme Court, and would no doubt become a landmark case.
Landmark cases have far-reaching consequences, and help shape the future of American society and decide the role of government.
The Most Important Legal Decisions in the USA
1. Roe v. Wade
Issue: Abortion and Right to Privacy
Until the late 19th century, early-stage abortion was legal in the U.S. In the 1850s, the newly established American Medical Association spoke out against it. In 1869, the Catholic Church banned abortion. It was a contentious issue, but not wholly illegal. Several states made abortion difficult, with a variety of conditions imposed.
In 1969, a Texan woman named Norma McCorvey wanted to have an abortion. At that time, abortion in Texas was possible only if the pregnancy was dangerous for the mother. Her attorneys, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, filed a case against Dallas district attorney Henry Wade.
Norma McCorvey, named in court documents as Jane Roe, won in Texas courts, but Wade vowed to continue to prosecute such cases.
In January 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Roe.
In effect, the court decision stated that a woman had the right to abortion, and making it illegal contravened the 14th Amendment, which guarantees the right to privacy.
Roe v. Wade, probably the most famous court case in America, is still a contentious issue. You may hear about it on American news programs regularly, as proponents on both sides of the issue are still quite active.
2. Brown v. Board of Education
Issue: School Segregation and Equal Rights
Though slavery ended in 1865 with the 13th Amendment pronouncing it illegal, Jim Crow laws persevered throughout many parts of the country.
Jim Crow laws were local and state laws that ensured segregation: such as black people not being allowed to use restrooms that whites used, being forced to sit behind whites on a bus, not attending schools where white children studied, and not being allowed to use the same park benches. The list of deprivations goes on.
In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation was legal. This effectively created a system with one facility for those of color, and the other for whites. Needless to say, the facilities for people of color, including schools, were underfunded.
In 1951, Oliver Brown of Topeka, Kansas sued the Board of Education after his daughter Linda was denied entry to an elementary school meant for white children.
The legal argument was that schools for people of color did not receive adequate resources, and this was against the 14th Amendment, which guarantees all citizens equality in all things.
Though the Kansas court was sympathetic to the argument, they did not overturn the statute.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 to overturn all Jim Crow laws.
The Brown v. Board of Education decision was a cornerstone of the Civil Rights movement that gathered momentum under Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
3. Miranda v. Arizona
Issue: Due process of law and right to not self-incriminate
In 1963, a young girl was abducted by a man in Phoenix, Arizona. After an hour or so, he let her go. The police, in the course of their investigation, picked up Ernesto Miranda as a suspect.
The victim could not clearly identify Miranda from a lineup. But, Miranda was led to assume he had been identified.
After two hours of questioning without a lawyer being present, Miranda was worn out and tired.
He then wrote a detailed confession. This written testimony was the only evidence used to convict him of kidnap and rape.
Following the conviction, Robert Corcoran of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed an appeal in the Supreme Court.
The case revolves around the Fifth Amendment (no one can be asked to incriminate themselves), and the Sixth Amendment (rights of a defendant, including the right to a lawyer).
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Arizona Supreme Court. Miranda’s confession could not be used to prosecute him.
From that moment on, all who are arrested have to be “Mirandized.” Though the exact wording may vary, the sum and substance of it reads:
- You have the right to remain silent.
- Anything you say can and will be used in a court of law as evidence against you.
- You have the right to an attorney.
- If you can’t afford legal assistance, an attorney will be provided for you.
Upon retrial, Miranda was convicted based on the testimony of his girlfriend.
4. Texas v. Johnson
Issue: Freedom of speech
It might not be among the most famous Supreme Court cases, but Texas v. Johnson certainly defined the extraordinary extent of the First Amendment.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. The limits of free speech are tested from time to time. For example, you do not have the right to shout “fire,” for fun, in a packed movie theatre.
In 1984, Gregory Lee Johnson, a young political activist, burned the U.S. flag in protest against President Ronald Reagan’s policies. The incident happened in Dallas, Texas.
Texan law prohibits the desecration of the national flag. Johnson was arrested and imprisoned. His conviction was, however, overturned by the state appellate court.
Upon review, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the appellate decision 5-4. The judgment stated that the government cannot ban an act just because it is disagreeable and offensive for many.
The case established that in the U.S., freedom of speech is almost absolute (as long as it does not cause harm). The U.S. is one of the rare nations where one can criticize those in powerful positions with no legal retribution, or threat of incarceration.
Other Important Rulings
These four are the most crucial and worthy of mention. There are, of course, many others:
- Korematsu v. the United States (issue: equal protection),
- Obergefell v. Hodges (issue: marriage equality, equality before law),
- New Jersey v. T. L. O. (issue: school search and seizure),
- Plessy v. Ferguson (issue: equal protection, segregation),
- Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (issue: affirmative action and equal protection).
A quick Google search will reveal a simplified thesis about each of these.
The legal system in the U.S. is intended to be fair and impartial. These judgements provide examples of this.
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