You Gotta Know These Supreme Court Cases: Part II

Each case is followed by the name of the justice who wrote the majority opinion, the presiding Chief Justice, the vote, and the year it was decided.

  • Chisholm v. Georgia (No majority opinion, Chief Justice John Jay, 4–1, 1793) Following the death of Robert Farquhar, his estate’s executor, Alexander Chisholm—who, like Farquhar, was a South Carolina resident—sued the state of Georgia to collect money Georgia owed Farquhar for goods it purchased during the American Revolution. Georgia claimed that sovereign immunity protected it from Chisholm’s suit. However, the Supreme Court held that Article III Section 2 gave citizens the right to sue a state, finding against Georgia. The Court’s ruling proved so controversial that it resulted in the 1794 passage of the Eleventh Amendment, which specifically prohibited U.S. or foreign citizens from filing a lawsuit against a state (with certain exceptions).
  • Gibbons v. Ogden (John Marshall, author and Chief Justice, 6–0, 1824) Thomas Gibbons and Aaron Ogden were partners in a steamboat business that ferried people between New York and New Jersey. Ogden had purchased a license granting him a monopoly under New York law. After the partners suffered a disagreement and split up, Gibbons applied for and received a federal permit to run a similar business. Ogden sued Gibbons for violating Ogden’s monopoly. In a unanimous decision, Marshall held that Congress’ interstate regulatory power under the Commerce Clause had “no limitations other than are prescribed in the Constitution.” Gibbons’ federal permit trumped Ogden’s state-granted monopoly.
  • Dred Scott v. Sandford (Roger Taney, author and Chief Justice, 7–2, 1857) Dred Scott was a slave purchased by John Emerson in the 1820s and who at various points lived in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, both of which prohibited slavery. In 1853, Scott sued his then-owner John Sanford for his freedom. The Supreme Court ruled that no African-American—slave or free—was a citizen of the United States, and that therefore Scott lacked standing to initiate a lawsuit in the first place. In addition, the Court found the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional, holding that Congress lacked authority to prohibit slavery in any new territory that was not originally part of the United States.
  • Munn v. Illinois (Morrison Waite, author and Chief Justice, 7–2, 1877) Ira Munn owned a set of Chicago grain elevators and charged oppressively high fees for their use. In 1871, the Illinois legislature passed a law setting maximum rates for grain storage. On appeal to the Supreme Court, lawyers for the business claimed that the Illinois statute violated Fourteenth Amendment due process rights regarding private property. Chief Justice Waite’s opinion upheld the Illinois law, and proclaimed that “when private property is devoted to a public use, it is subject to public regulation.” The decision was a landmark in the history of government regulation of businesses, especially railroads.
  • Muller v. Oregon (David Brewer, Chief Justice Melville Fuller, 9–0, 1908) Oregon laundry owner Curt Muller was fined for violating an Oregon law that limited the working hours of female employees; he appealed, claiming the law was an unconstitutional restriction of freedom of contract. Arguing on behalf of Oregon, future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis invoked scientific evidence to support the notion that excessive working hours were deleterious to a woman’s health. Oregon’s statute was upheld on the grounds that the state had a compelling interest in protecting the health of its female workers. One side effect of the decision was the judicial justification of sex discrimination in legislation.
  • Schenck v. United States (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Chief Justice Edward White, 9–0, 1919) The Espionage Act of 1917 prohibited—among other things—any attempt to inhibit recruitment by the U.S. Armed Forces. Charles Schenck was a Socialist who opposed conscription and distributed literature urging readers to resist the draft. Follwing his arrest and conviction, he appealed, claiming that his advocacy was protected speech covered by the First Amendment. Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Holmes claimed the First Amendment does not protect speech that creates a “clear and present danger,” and that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theatre.”
  • Griswold v. Connecticut (William O. Douglas, Chief Justice Earl Warren, 7–2, 1965) In 1879, Connecticut outlawed the use of contraception. In 1961, Estelle Griswold and Lee Buxton, who were directors of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, were charged with violating that ban after they opened a birth control clinic. Justice Douglas’ majority opinion held that “specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras,” and that “emanations” of those guarantees create a Constitutional “right to privacy” that protects intensely personal decisions, such as the right of married couples to choose whether or not to use birth control. Connecticut’s law was struck down.
  • Miranda v. Arizona (Earl Warren, author and Chief Justice, 5–4, 1966) In 1963, Phoenix police arrested Ernesto Miranda on suspicion of kidnapping and rape; he subsequently confessed to those crimes. During his initial interrogation by police, Miranda was never informed of his Fifth or Sixth Amendment rights. Writing for a thin majority, Chief Justice Warren stated that “[p]rior to any questioning, [a] person must be warned that he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed,” laying the groundwork for the iconic “Miranda warnings.”
  • Loving v. Virginia (Earl Warren, author and Chief Justice, 9–0, 1967) Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 was an anti-miscegenation law that criminalized marriages between whites and non-whites. In 1958, Virginia residents Richard Loving (a white man) and Mildred Jeter (a woman of both African-American and Native American heritage) were married in Washington, D.C., which did not have such a statute. After returning to their Virginia home, they were arrested and convicted under the Racial Integrity Act. Striking down that Act as violating both the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, Chief Justice Warren wrote that “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”
  • Lawrence v. Texas (Anthony Kennedy, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 6–3, 2003) In 1998, a false police report led Houston police to the apartment of John Lawrence; upon entering, deputies claimed they found Lawrence having sex with another man, Tyron Gardner. Both men were charged with homosexual conduct, still a misdemeanor in Texas. Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause protected a person’s “liberty” to engage in consensual homosexual activity, and declared the Texas law unconstitutional. The decision in Lawrence overturned Bowers v. Hardwick (1986)—in which the court upheld a similar Georgia law—and has been cited as a key predecessor of both U.S. v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges.

This article was contributed by NAQT editor Jason Thompson.

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