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SCOTUS CASES

WHAT EXACTLY IS THE "SCOTUS" ?

"SCOTUS" stands for the Supreme Court of the US. Our Supreme Court includes a Chief Justice and 8 other justices. The Supreme Court is the highest US court, and it makes decisions to interpret the Constitution. It can overturn decisions made by Congress, states and lower courts.

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Marbury v. Madison 

(1803)

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Context

President John Adams and Congress created new courts and positions during his tenure. They chose William Marbury as Justice of Peace in the District of Columbia. When Thomas Jefferson became president, his Secretary of State, James Madison, blocked the choice. Marbury sued.

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Question

Who has greatest authority to decide the law?

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Decision

Both Madison's action and the law that Marbury sued under were illegal. The Supreme Court possessed judicial review, which is the Court's power to strike down unconstitutional laws. 

Significance

It created judicial review. 

McCulloch v. Maryland

(1819)

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Context

Congress chartered the 2nd Bank of the US (BUS) in 1816, but Maryland passed a state law taxing the bank. James McCulloch, a worker at a branch of the BUS in Maryland, refused to pay the tax. The state court said the creation of the 2nd BUS was unconstitutional. 

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Question

Does Congress have the power to create a national bank? Does Maryland have the power to tax the national bank?

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Decision

Congress has implied powers to create the bank under the necessary and proper clause. Because federal laws overpower state ones, Maryland did not have the power to tax the bank.

Significance

It established the principles of:
 

- implied powers: powers not clearly stated in the Constitution that are given to the US government

- Supremacy clause: the federal Constitution and federal laws are superior to state ones 

Gibbons v. Ogden

(1824)

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Context

Aaron Ogden had a license through a steamboat monopoly from New York that allowed interstate commerce. Thomas Gibbons had a competing license and operated within New York. Ogden sued Gibbons in NY court, claiming that states and the federal government should share the power to regulate interstate commerce. Gibbons' lawyer argued that only Congress had this power. 

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Question

Do states have the power to pass laws regulating interstate commerce under the Commerce Clause?

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Decision

State governments, such as the New York government, do not have the power to regulate interstate commerce. 

Significance

It helped define commerce more broadly, since it defined interstate steamboat travel as commerce. 

Dred Scott v. Sandford

(1857)

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Context

An enslaved man from slave state Missouri named Dred Scott moved to Illinois, a free state, with his master. His master died, and he sued the widow when he went back to Missouri in its court. He claimed he was free because he lived in a free state. 

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Question

Do enslaved people have the right to sue in federal court?

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Decision

Congress cannot ban slavery in free states, and enslaved people do not have the right to sue in federal courts.

Significance

It took the right to sue from enslaved people and locked them into their roles as property. It brought more controversy that led to the Civil War.

Plessy v. Ferguson

(1896)

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Context

Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting in and refusing to leave a white-only train car in Louisiana. He said this violated equal protection under the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection under the law to citizens.

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Question

Is the separation of races constitutional, especially when applied to the 14th Amendment?

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Decision

The Court supported the Louisiana law allowing segregation, as long as the cars were "separate but equal." It claimed this law did not violate the 14th Amendment.

Significance

It established the principle of "separate but equal," making segregation legal.

Schenck v. US

(1919)

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Context

During World War I, two anti-war socialists named Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer handed out pamphlets advocating against the draft. They claimed it was forced labor, violating the 13th Amendment's removal of slavery. Schenck got in trouble for violating the Espionage Act of 1917.

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Question

Is certain wartime speech that violates the Espionage Act of 1917 protected by the 1st Amendment's Freedom of Speech? 

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Decision

The Espionage Act did not violate the 1st Amendment. During a war, negative speech can be limited because of wartime authority and the fact that it presents clear and present danger.

Significance

It created the clear and present danger test, which says that speech can be restricted if it causes clear and present danger (ex: yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater). It restricted free speech during war. 

Brown v. Board of Education

(1954)

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Context

Many African Americans, including a young girl named Linda Brown, were denied access to certain public schools because of their race. They claimed it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection under the law to citizens. 

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Question

Do schools segregated by race violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment?

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Decision

Separate schools are inherently unequal. They cause African Americans to think they are inferior to others, hurting advancement in both educational and social environments. 

Significance

It overturned 

Plessy v. Ferguson and established that "separate is inherently unequal."

Engel v. Vitale

(1962)

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Context

New York passed a law requiring public schools to recite a nondenominational morning prayer. A small group of parents led by Steven Engel said this violated the 1st Amendment's Freedom of Religion by establishing an official religion. 

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Question

Does reciting a daily nondenominational prayer violate the "establishment of religion" clause of the 1st Amendment?

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Decision

Reciting a morning nondenominational prayer is unconstitutional, even if students are not forced to participate. It violates the establishment clause.

Significance

It prevented the establishment of religious practices at public schools. It further separated church and state.

Gideon v. Wainwright

(1963)

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Context

Florida court charged Clarence Earl Gideon with breaking and entering a pool hall. He was not allowed to request free legal help, so he was forced to defend himself, and he lost. While he was in prison, he wrote a letter to the Supreme Court claiming his situation was unconstitutional. 

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Question

Does an individual charged with a felony, but unable to pay for a lawyer, have the constitutional right to have free legal counsel (6th Amendment)?

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Decision

State courts must provide free legal counsel for accused felons that cannot afford it, as stated in the 6th Amendment's guarantee of counsel. 

Significance

It expanded access to legal counsel and assistance for those who could not afford it. It made counsel a "necessity" rather than a "luxury."

Miranda v. Arizona

(1966)

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Context

Police arrested Ernesto Miranda at his house for murder and brought him to the police station to ask him questions. A few hours later, they were given a written confession from him, and it was used as evidence. He was unaware of his right to remain silent and to have an attorney with him.

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Question

Do police have to remind criminal suspects of their rights to an attorney and to remain silent (5th Amendment)?

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Decision

Criminal suspects must be reminded of their 5th Amendment rights (rights to an attorney and to remain silent). Anything they say can/will be used against them. 

Significance

Today, “Miranda” warnings are commonly seen on TV. They are used just as much in real life before interrogation to remind criminal suspects of their rights and to remind police officers that they must make suspects aware of these rights. 

Tinker v. Des Moines

(1969)

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Context

A small group of students from Des Moines planned to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school. The school administration heard of their plans and forbade them. Mary Beth Tinker and other students wore the bands to school. They were sent home and did not return for a few weeks. 

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Question

Do public school students have the right to symbolically and politically protest the Vietnam War with black armbands?

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Decision

Symbolic speech can only be limited if it endangers or prevents learning. The students' actions were harmless, therefore, the school violated their freedom of speech. 

Significance

When students go to school, they do not lose their constitutional rights. They do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech…at the schoolhouse gate." 

Wisconsin v. Yoder

(1972)

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Context

Wisconsin law required kids to attend school until they were 16 years old. A group of Amish parents, including Jonas Yoder, refused to send their kids to school past eighth grade. They claimed it violated their beliefs and the free exercise of religion. 

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Question

Does Wisconsin's requirement to attend school until age 16 violate the free exercise (of religion) clause of the 1st Amendment?

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Decision

The Amish families' right to free exercise of religion overpowers Wisconsin's required education law. Going to school past eighth grade was "in sharp conflict with the fundamental mode of life mandated by the Amish religion."

Significance

A citizen's religious freedom overpowers a state's interests. In this case, the Amish beliefs overpower Wisconisn's interests.

Roe v. Wade

(1973)

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Context

Jane Roe sued Henry Wade, who was the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, because Texas law stated that a woman could only have an abortion if the pregnancy endangered her life. Roe claimed the law violated her freedom of privacy (1st, 4th, 5th, 9th, & 14th Amendments). 

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Question

Does the Constitution protect a women's right to privacy when it involves abortion?

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Decision

Texas law violates a woman's constitutional right to privacy (14th Amendment's Due Process Clause). Any laws that make abortion illegal before the fetus is viable are unconstitutional. 

Significance

It gave women access to abortion, especially during the first trimester. It was a major event in the battle over abortion rights. 

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke 

(1978)

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Context

Allan Bakke was rejected from UC Davis twice. Every year, UC Davis reserved 16 out of 100 spots for minorities, part of a government plan known as affirmative action. Bakke believed his test scores and grades were stronger than those of minority applicants, so he claimed he was denied admission because of his race.

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Question

Is it constitutional for colleges to use racial quotas when deciding admissions?

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Decision

Bakke deserves to be admitted. Creating racial quotas (designated numbers of admitted minorities) is unconstitutional, but race can be a factor in college admissions decisions.

Significance

This was the first of many cases supporting affirmative action. Most of these cases clarified that it is acceptable for race to be a factor in admissions. If it is the main deciding factor, it violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. 

District of Columbia v. Heller

(2008)

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Context

Richard Heller, a security guard in Washington DC, had to use a gun for work. The law said handguns needed to be registered, and they had to be disassembled when in a home. He applied for a permit to keep his gun functional at home, but it was denied. He believed this made it impossible for him to defend himself and violated his right to keep and bear arms (2nd Amendment). 

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Question

Does the Washington DC law restricting the licensing and assembly of handguns violate the 2nd Amendment?

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Decision

US citizens have the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms assembled in their homes for self-defense.

Significance

Laws involving acquiring and assembling guns were loosened, making it easier to obtain and use guns. It was also the first time in 7 decades that the Supreme Court decided on gun rights.

Obergerfell v. Hodges

(2015)

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Context

James Obergerfell and John Arthur married in Maryland, but they were from Ohio, where gay marriage was banned on death certificates. Arthur became mortally sick and wanted Obergerfell on his certificate, but it was not allowed. He and other couples claimed this violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment. 

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Question

Is a state required to license marriage to a same-sex couple because of the 14th Amendment? Is the marriage acceptable in one state if it was performed in another?

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Decision

The 14th Amendment's Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses include same-sex marriage in the amendment's right to marry, therefore all states must give same-sex couples the right to legally marry. 

Significance

It gave gay couples the right to legally marry in all states. Previously, 13 states still forbade gay marriage. 

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