Most important Supreme Court decisions?

Forgive me if this has been asked before. (I usually hang out in GD.) I did a search and didn’t come up with anything.

What, in your opinion, are the most important decisions the Supreme Court has ever handed down? The ones that have had the greatest, most lasting impact on our country and our lives?

I’ll kick it ff with a couple of the more obvious ones:

Brown v. Board of Education
Roe v. Wade

But those are easy, the ones in the news all the time. What other Supreme Court decisions should every American know?

Thanks in advance for your input,

– Beruang

The granddaddy of them all: Marbury v. Madison, in 1803.

In Marbury, the Supreme Court for the first time asserted that it had the power to declare acts of the other branches of government unconstitutional. The Court set itself up as the supreme arbiter of the meaning of the Constitution, and thus of all federal law. Without that case, none of the later Supreme Court cases would have had such a great impact.

Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Court’s own little contribution to the Civil War that declared black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect.

Plessy v. Ferguson, the one that officially sanctioned Jim Crow (Brown, which ended it, has already been mentioned, of course).

Miranda v. State of Arizona, which gave “You have the right to remain silent,” etc., to the vocabulary of policemen and cop shows everywhere.

Bakke v. Board of Regents, where the affirmative action camel got its nose under the tent despite a ruling against a race-based admissions policy in that particular case.

What the hell was that “one man, one vote” case that shifted the American power balance away from rural areas to the cities? Baker v. Carr?

United States vs. Nixon (1974) was a pretty big one.

Griswold vs. Connecticut, I don’t remember the date.

This is the decision that supposedly establishes our “Right to Privacy”. Many folks think that right is firmly established in the Constitution - it isn’t, it developed from this decision. It’s a very fragile argument, and many people, including Robert Bork, who was nearly a S.C. Justice, feel that this right does not exist.

This is such a broad topic. Mapp v. Ohio is one – it’s the case establishing the exclusionary rule for violations of the 4th Amendment (search & seizure). Under this rule, if the cops get evidence on a crook illegally it can’t be used. Before Mapp, (1963? Definitely in the '60’s somewhere) some states allowed the evidence in and dealt with the violation in other ways, such as by punishing the cops who searched illegally.

Gideon v. Wainright (also '60’s) – You have a right to an attorney in criminal prosecutions. If you cannot afford an attorney, the state must provide one.


P.S. Just because the right to privacy isn’t mentioned in the text doesn’t mean it’s not firmly established in the Constitution.

Gore v. Bush, for revealing that the Supremes are not nigh-omnipotent arbitrators of wisdom, but merely glorified office clerks who can be just as partisan and hypocritical as everyone else. Law students will be studying the errors in that one for decades.

I disagree. The decision was controversial, but not on par with many of the other decisions in this thread (though it was a certainty that somebody would post about this decision).

A case I would say that is pretty important in the 20th century is Wickard v. Fillburn. This New Deal era case helped to vastly increase the reach of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

And, if you want cases that show the Supreme Court to be political, Gore v. Bush doesn’t hold a candle to some of the New Deal cases.

Anyone who’s seen Plessy or Dred Scott knows that.

The New York Times case. Libel and 1st Amendment and all…

The three most important USSC decisions were handed down early. Marbury v Madison (1803) said the Court had real power; without this important decision there wouldn’t have been any subsequent important ones. McCulloch v Maryland (1819) said that the Constitution should be interpreted broadly not narrowly in determining government powers. And Gibbons v Ogden (1824) first used the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause to justify Congressional legislation. Compared to the scope of issues affected by these decisions, later decisions like Dred Scott, Brown, Roe, Mapp, or Gideon were local issues.

While I don’t know that I would agree with Little Nemo’s statements about the scope of some of the “local” cases he cites, I would include on the list of “most important cases” Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company v. Chicago (166 US 226 (1897). This case was one of the first if not the first by which SCOTUS held that the Due Process Clause incorporates some (but to date not all) of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights to be binding upon the states. Without the doctrine of incorporation, the reach of the federal Constitution would be a fraction of what it is.

Marbury v. Madison was the most important. And yes, Baker v. Carr is one person one vote for drawing state legislative districts. Other posts are great ones too.

Ooh, how could I forget Wickard v. Filburn?

Times v. Sullivan - 376 U.S. 254

Probably responsible for the temperament and tenor of today’s press.

Wait! Wait! Nobody’s mentioned Pennoyer! :wink:


Are you people drunk?!

Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64

I quote: “There is no federal general common law.” Earth-shaking stuff!