- Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
Few cases have so substantially reversed a long trend within a country’s policies in a way to tangible to millions. This case famously ruled that it was unconstitutional to force people of different races to go to different schools. “In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” A unanimous decision that was almost completely unprecedented, this case deserves this spot because change on this level was perhaps unreachable from any venue other than the Supreme Court. Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice goes into great detail about the history of the case but makes an important note: this case is not an example of some great statement of victorious benevolence, but rather stands more as a reminder for how long the United States denied the fundamental personhood of a large portion of the population. All that this case did was reverse one instance of gross (both meanings) inequality. This was a baby step for the United States, and while a remarkably important one, should serve to remind us how recently massive, blatant, systemic inequality festered within the world.
- Worcester v. Georgia
President Andrew Jackson allegedly claimed “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” In Worcester v. Georgia the court ruled nearly unanimously that it was unlawful to keep a member of the Cherokee Nation from Cherokee land–a simple and obvious decision, but one that was ultimately meaningless in actual policy until years later as a precedent. Of course not the only case that involved the rights of Native Nations, this one stands out because of the attempt the court made to acknowledge sovereignty rights–albeit a minor one in the scheme of things–of a group, but the complete failure of that decision to change anything. Ultimately, all politics is enforced by actual people. The Supreme Court only has any power because people choose to actually enforce its rulings. The law of the land is no excuse for individuals not fighting against injustice, because that same law can also be overturned for evil by individuals.
- Gideon v. Wainwright
Next to Miranda v. Arizona (and a few others), this case acknowledges the reality that those who enforce the law are not above the law, and that the only way to ensure that people are given justice is if both defendant and accuser are represented by someone who knows the law. While this ruling is a massive step towards promoting justice in the United States, it is often subverted by both police practices and the difficult realities of a law that puts a burden on the taxpayers but benefits only the poor and usually disenfranchised. A unanimous decision, this decision has made a practical, positive difference for many people through the years.
- Fletcher v. Peck
An early decision of the Supreme Court (and one that allegedly Chief Justice Marshall would try to mitigate in Worcester v. Georgia), this is one of the most interesting cases to talk about today. The Supreme Court decided that even though Georgia’s legislature had been bribed to sell Yazoo lands at unfairly low prices, Georgia could not later repeal that mistake because it would undermine the people’s trust in the ability to do business. Effectively, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that protecting the economy was more important than rectifying illegal and unjust actions. What would this country look like if they had decided otherwise?
- Roe v. Wade
This case is one of the most fascinating that the Court has ever decided. At the time of the decision, the Supreme Court was composed of a group of men (all white except for Thurgood Marshall) that had been appointed based primarily on their beliefs about economic policies who were suddenly responsible for determining if the law allowed for states to limit a woman’s ability to have an abortion. One of the first major social cases that has dominated the Court since then, many justices had to formulate their opinions and legal opinions about abortion simultaneously and immediately. It’s interesting to imagine how the so-called “culture wars” of the past decades would have played out had this case been decided differently. However, one of the most important aspects of this case is that when the Court (now with a woman appointed to it!) would have a chance to overturn it in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, they didn’t, even though appointees since Roe v. Wade had been chosen in part because of the assumption that they would overturn it given the chance.
- Honorable Mention: Republic of Austria v. Altmann
A country sued a person and the Supreme Court had to decide who was right. One of the more fun cases in Supreme Court history, the court decided that Maria Altmann could indeed sue the country of Austria in the United States for the paintings that had been stolen from her family by Nazi Germany. It’s a fascinating story that combines my love for the Supreme Court with my love for art history. Thankfully the court decided that indeed she could seek justice in the United States.
- Bottom: Korematsu v. United States
Although Dred Scott v. Sandford may actually be the worst decision that the court has ever made (and the vague preface-less way I make these lists means that this list of most interesting/influential (and not ones I most agree with) cases could actually put both of these in the positives), Korematsu v. United States edges it out for this spot for two reasons. First, Korematsu v. United States, which ruled that the racially based internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry without charge was fine and dandy, is still on the books as good law. While maligned since then as an awful decision, no decision or law has explicitly challenged it, while Dred Scott v. Sandford was countered by constitutional amendments. Second, Korematsu v. United States showed that even just 75 years ago large scale massive racialized imprisonment without cause was permitted because of the fear of the majority. At least we have some distance from Dred Scott, but this devastating decision could be easily made again.