The following Supreme Court decisions are among the most significant in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


1803 Marbury v. Madison -- For the first time, the Supreme Court ruled an act of Congress unconstitutional, establishing the principle of judicial review.

1819 McCullock v. Maryland -- The Court's ruling upheld the constitutionality of the creation of the Bank of the United States and denied to the states the power to tax such an institution because, as Justice John Marshall put it, "the power to tax is the power to destroy."

1819 Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward -- The Court ruled that a state could not arbitrarily alter the terms of a contract. Although this case applied to a college, its implications widened in later years when the same principle was used to limit states' ability to interfere with business contracts.

1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford -- The Missouri Compromise was declared unconstitutional because it deprived a person of his property (a slave) without due process of law. This was only the second time that the Court had asserted the power of judicial review. The decision also stated that slaves are not citizens of any state or of the United States.

1877 Munn v. Illinois -- States were allowed to regulate businesses when "a public interest" was involved. This principle was weakened by rulings in other cases in the late nineteenth century.

1895 U.S. v. E.C. Knight Co. -- In stating that manufacturing and commerce are not connected, and that the Sherman Anti-Trust Act could not be applied to manufacturers, the Court seriously impaired the government's ability to regulate monopolies.

1896 Plessy v. Ferguson -- The Supreme Court ruled that state laws enforcing segregation by race are constitutional if accommodations are equal as well as separate. Subsequently overturned by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka .

1904 Northern Securities Co. v. U.S. -- The High Court backed government action against big businesses that restrained trade, in effect, putting teeth in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

1908 Muller v. Oregon -- The Court ruled that a state could legislate maximum working hours based on evidence compiled by attorney Louis Brandeis.

1911 Standard Oil Co. Of New Jersey Et Al. v. U.S. -- The Court dissolved the Standard Oil Trust not because of its size but because of its unreasonable restraint of trade. The principle involved is called "the rule of reason."

1919 Schenck v. U.S. -- The Court upheld the World War I Espionage Act. In a landmark decision dealing with free speech, Justice Oliver W. Holmes said that a person who encourages draft resistance during a war is a "clear and present danger."

1935 Schechter v. U.S. -- Invalidating the National Industrial Recovery Act New Deal, the Court declared that Congress could not delegate its power to the president.

1951 Dennis Et Al. v. U.S. -- The Supreme Court ruled the 1946 Smith Act constitutional; the act made it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the government by force. In its 1957 Yates v. U.S. decision, the Court tempered this ruling by permitting such advocacy in the abstract if it is not connected to action to achieve this goal.

1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka -- In an example of sociological jurisprudence, the Court held unconstitutional laws enforcing segregated schools; it called for desegregation of schools "with all deliberate speed."

1957 Roth v. U.S. -- The ruling based obscenity decisions on whether a publication appeals to "prurient interests." The Court also said that obscene material is that which lacks any "redeeming social importance."

1961 Mapp v. Ohio -- The High Court extended the federal exclusionary rule to the states; this rule prevented prosecutors from using illegally obtained evidence in a criminal trial.

1962 Baker v. Carr -- The Court held that state legislatures must be apportioned to provide equal protection under the law (Fourteenth Amendment). A follow-up decision applied the same principle to the size of congressional districts, insisting that they be approximately equal in population.

1966 Miranda v. Arizona -- The case declared that before questioning suspects, police must inform them of their right to remain silent, that any statements they make can be used against them, and that they have the right to remain silent until they have an attorney, which the state will provide if they cannot afford to pay.

1972 Furman v. Georgia -- The Court found unconstitutional all death penalty statues then in force in the states, but held out the possibility that if they were rewritten so as to be less subjective and randomly imposed, they might be constitutional (as the Court has subsequently held in many instances).

1973 Roe v. Wade -- The Court rule state laws prohibiting abortion unconstitutional, except as they apply to the last trimester of pregnancy, on the basis that the Fourteenth Amendment provides for a woman's freedom to make a private decision about her reproductive practices.

1978 University of California v. Bakke -- The ruling allowed a university to admit students on the basis of race if the school's aim is to combat discrimination. Subsequent decisions of the Court have filled in the details of how government and business may use quotas to make up for past racism.

1986 Bowers v. Hardwick -- In a case involving enforcement of Georgia's law against sodomy, the Court ruled that states have the power to regulate sexual relations in private between consenting adults.

1989 Webster v. Reproductive Health Services -- The Court upheld a Missouri law forbidding public employees to perform most abortions, prohibiting the use of public buildings for abortions, and requiring a fetal viability test prior to abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. This case set a precedent allowing other states to restrict access to abortions.