In the United States courts play an important role in defining and interpreting statutes. Following English custom, lower courts are bound to follow the precedents of higher courts, and higher courts are (theoretically) bound to follow their own precedents.
Some of the most important turning points in American history and culture have come out of court decisions. This is particularly true in areas where elected politicians lack the political will to to make necessary reforms.
Freedom for a slave (1773)
Prince Boston, a Massachusetts slave, made history by obtaining his freedom from the Swain family through a lengthy court battle.
- Prince Boston (1750-?), slave
- William Swain, slave owner
Power of the courts (1803)
William Marbury, a justice of the peace appointed by retiring President John Adams, sued Secretary of State James Madison in an attempt to force President Thomas Jefferson to recognize the appointments made by Adams. The U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Court did not have the power to issue a writ to enforce Adam's appointment, but the Court did have the power to declare a federal law unconstitutional. Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803).
- William Marbury (1762–1835), justice of the peace
- James Madison (1751-1836), Secretary of State
- John Marshall (1755-1835), Chief Justice
- John Adams (1735-1826), 2nd U.S. President
- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), 3rd U.S. President
Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. 1 (1824).
- Thomas Gibbons
- Aaron Ogden (1756-1839), operated a steamship company
- Daniel Webster (1782-1852), attorney for Gibbons
- William Wirt (1772-1834), attorney for Gibbons
Cherokee removal (1831)
The Cherokee Nation sought a federal injunction against laws passed by the state of Georgia depriving them of rights within its boundaries. The U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the Court had no original jurisdiction in the matter, as the Cherokee were a dependent nation, with a relationship to the United States like that of a ward to its guardian. The decision paved the way for Georgia to remove the Cherokee Nation from the state. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. 1 (1831).
- William Wirt (1772-1834), attorney for the Cherokee Nation
Authority over Indians (1832)
Two missionaries were arrested by the state of Georgia for living in Cherokee territory without a license. The U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the United States had inherited the rights of Great Britain, and therefore only the federal government, not the states, has authority in Indian affairs. President Andrew Jackson is supposed to have said, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it." Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832).
School desegregation (1845)
Absalom Boston and his daughter led a successful court case to desegregate the Nantucket, Massachusetts school system.
Status of slaves (1857)
Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857).
- Henry Taylor Blow (1817-1875), slave owner
- Peter Blow (1777-1832), slave owner
- Roger B. Taney (1777-1864), Chief Justice, wrote the Court's opinion
Right to a trial (1861)
Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144 (C.C.D. Md. 1861) (No. 9487).
- John Merryman (1824-1881), indicted for treason but denied a trial
- Roger B. Taney (1777-1864), Chief Justice
The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)
A United States federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882. It was one of the most significant restrictions on free immigration in US history, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. The act followed revisions made in 1880 to the US-China Burlingame Treaty of 1868, revisions that allowed the US to suspend Chinese immigration. The act was initially intended to last for 10 years, but was renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. It was finally repealed by the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943.
Separate but equal (1896)
Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).
- Homer Plessy (1862-1925), violated Louisiana's segregraton law
- John Ferguson (1838-1915), judge
- Henry Billings Brown (1836-1913), Associate Justice, wrote the Court's opinion
- John Marshall Harlan (1833-1911), only dissenting Justice
Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911).
- Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), owner of Standard Oil
Executive Order 9066 (1942)
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an order for the internment in "War Relocation Camps" of over 110,000 people of Japanese heritage who lived on the Pacific coast of the United States. The constitutionality of the order was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944.
Freedom of Political Association (1950)
The Supreme Court in April 1950 rejected the petition for rehearing the case of The Hollywood Ten, an action which made Congress bolder in its pursuit of alleged Communists and ushered in an intense period of public scrutiny. Charles Hamilton Houston played a key role in the representation of the Hollywood Ten, and it was not until after Houston’s untimely death that his contributions in the Hollywood Ten matter were fully recognized. His work in that case laid the foundation for a strong fundamental right to political association. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Warren Court embraced the ingenious seeds of Houston’s logic, developing constitutional doctrine influenced by his early First Amendment litigation on behalf of the Hollywood Ten. The Hollywood Ten case created the national standard for freedom of political association that exists today.
School desegregation (1954)
Thirteen parents in Topeka, Kansas filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of their 20 children against the Topeka Board of Education asking the courts to overturn the school district's policy of racial segregation. The U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional, overturning Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
- Oliver L. Brown (1918-1961), parent
Defining obscenity (1957)
Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957).
- Samuel Roth (1893-1974), publisher and writer
Segregation in public transportation (1960)
Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454 (1960).
School prayer (1962)
Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962).
Bible reading in schools (1963)
Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).
- Edward Schempp, Unitarian-Universalist minister who objected to Bible readings
- Ellery Schempp (1940- ), student
- Madalyn Murray O'Hair (1919-1995), atheist
Civil rights (1964)
During a summer of racial tension, three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi, while investigating the burning of Mt. Zion Methodist Church. Mississippi officials refused to prosecute the accused for murder. However, the federal government prosecuted for civil rights violations. The Neshoba County deputy sheriff and six conspirators were convicted. Eight defendants were found Not Guilty. The defendants were acquitted because of a jury deadlock, one of who was later convicted of manslaughter. The case contributed to passing the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The events surrounding the murders and trial were depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning (1988). United States v. Cecil Price, et al. 383 U.S. 787 (1966).
- James Chaney (1943-1964), civil rights activist killed by the Ku Klux Klan
- Andrew Goodman (1943-1964), civil rights activist killed by the Ku Klux Klan
- Michael Schwerner (1939-1964), civil rights activist killed by the Ku Klux Klan
- Cecil Price (1938-2001), chief deputy sheriff of Neshoba County, convicted of civil rights violations
- Sam H. Bowers, Jr. (1924-2006), Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, convicted of civil rights violations
- Horace Doyle Barnette, salesman, convicted of civil rights violations
- Jimmy Arledge, truck driver, convicted of civil rights violations
- Billy Wayne Posey, service station operator, convicted of civil rights violations
- Jimmie Snowden, laundry truck driver, convicted of civil rights violations
- Alton W. Roberts (1938-1999), salesman, convicted of civil rights violations
- Lawrence A. Rainey, the sheriff of Neshoba County, acquitted of charges
- Bernard L. Akin, housetrailer dealer, acquitted of charges
- Travis M. Barnette, mechanic, acquitted of charges
- James T. Harris, truck driver, acquitted of charges
- Frank J. Herndon, operator of drive-in restaurant, acquitted of charges
- Olen L. Burrage, the owner of the farm on which the bodies were buried, acquitted of charges
- Herman Tucker, the builder of the dam in which the bodies were found, acquitted of charges
- Richard A. Willis, former Philadelphia policeman, acquitted of charges
- Ethel Glen Barnett, Democratic nominee for Neshoba County sheriff
- Jerry McGrew Sharpe, pulpwood hauler, no verdict
- Edgar Ray Killen (1925- ), Baptist minister, no verdit in 1966, convicted of three counts of manslaughter in 2005
- John Doar (1921- ), federal prosecutor
- Langdon Smith Anderson (foreman), oil exploration operator and member of the State Agricultural and Industrial Board, juror
- Mrs. S.M. Green, housewife, juror
- Mrs. Lessie Lowery, grocery store owner, juror
- Howard O. Winborn, pipefitter, juror
- Harmon W. Rasberry, textile worker, juror
- Mrs. Gussie B. Staton, housewife, juror
- Jessie P. Hollingsworth, electrician, juror
- Mrs. James C. Heflin, production worker, juror
- Mrs. Nell B. Dedeaux, housewife, juror
- Willie V. Arneson, secretary, juror
- Edsell Z. Parks, clerk, juror
- Adelaide H. Comer, school cafeteria cook, juror
Right to know your rights (1966)
Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).
- Ernesto Mirando (1941-1976), defendant.
An attorney who played a key role in this decision was John Paul Frank. He and his law partner, John J. Flynn, represented Ernesto Miranda, who was arrested in 1963 and confessed to a rape after two hours of police interrogation in Phoenix, Ariz. Frank was the legal scholar who with Flynn wrote the brief considered by the Supreme Court. The resulting decision in June, 1966, required police to always inform an arrestee of his or her legal rights.
Mildred Loving and her husband Richard Perry Loving were convicted of miscegenation, a felony in Virginia. The U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren, in a unanimous decision, declared Virginia's anti-miscegenation statute, the "Racial Integrity Act of 1924", unconstitutional, thereby overturning Pace v. Alabama (1883) and ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States. Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967).
Abortion rights (1973)
Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
Re-defining obscenity (1973)
Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973).
- Marvin Miller, mail order business operator
Limiting presidential power (1974)
United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974).
- Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994), 37th U.S. President
Gays and lesbians (1996)
Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996).
- Roy Romer (1928- ), Governor of Colorado
- Richard G. Evans
Disputed election (2000)
Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000).
Sodomy statutes (2003)
Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).
- John Geddes Lawrence
- Tyron Garner
Corporations are people (2010)
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 50 (2010).