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Landmark Supreme Court Cases

Marbury v. Madison (1803)
Holding: Established the doctrine of judicial review.
In the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress gave the Supreme Court the authority to issue certain judicial writs. The Constitution did not give the Court this power. Because the Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land, the Court held that any contradictory congressional Act is without force. The ability of federal courts to declare legislative and executive actions unconstitutional is known as judicial review.

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)
Holding: The Constitution gives the federal government certain implied powers.
Maryland imposed a tax on the Bank of the United States and questioned the federal government's ability to grant charters without explicit constitutional sanction. The Supreme Court held that the tax unconstitutionally interfered with federal supremacy and ruled that the Constitution gives the federal government certain implied powers.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Holding: Separate schools are not equal.
In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court sanctioned segregation by upholding the doctrine of "separate but equal." The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People disagreed with this ruling, challenging the constitutionality of segregation in the Topeka, Kansas, school system. In 1954, the Court reversed its Plessy decision, declaring that "separate schools are inherently unequal."

Cooper v. Aaron (1958)
Holding: States cannot nullify decisions of the federal courts.
Several government officials in southern states, including the governor and legislature of Alabama, refused to follow the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision. They argued that the states could nullify federal court decisions if they felt that the federal courts were violating the Constitution. The Court unanimously rejected this argument and held that only the federal courts can decide when the Constitution is violated.

Mapp v. Ohio (1961)
Holding: Illegally obtained material cannot be used in a criminal trial.
While searching Dollree Mapp's house, police officers discovered obscene materials and arrested her. Because the police officers never produced a search warrant, she argued that the materials should be suppressed as the fruits of an illegal search and seizure. The Supreme Court agreed and applied to the states the exclusionary rule from Weeks v. United States (1914).

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
Holding: Indigent defendants must be provided representation without charge.
Gideon was accused of committing a felony. Being indigent, he petitioned the judge to provide him with an attorney free of charge. The judge denied his request. The Supreme Court ruled for Gideon, saying that the Sixth Amendment requires indigent criminal defendants to be provided an attorney free of charge.

Miranda v. Arizona (1966)
Holding: Police must inform suspects of their rights before questioning.
After hours of police interrogations, Ernesto Miranda confessed to rape and kidnapping. At trial, he sought to suppress his confession, stating that he was not advised of his rights to counsel and to remain silent. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that police must inform suspects of their rights before questioning.

Terry v. Ohio (1968)
Holding: Stop and frisks do not violate the Constitution under certain circumstances.
Observing Terry and others acting suspiciously in front of a store, a police officer concluded that they might rob it. The officer stopped and frisked the men. A weapon was found on Terry and he was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon. The Supreme Court ruled that this search was reasonable.

U.S. v. Nixon (1974)
Holding: The President is not above the law.
The special prosecutor in the Watergate affair subpoenaed audio tapes of Oval Office conversations. President Nixon refused to turn over the tapes, asserting executive privilege. The Supreme Court ruled that the defendants' right to potentially exculpating evidence outweighed the President's right to executive privilege if national security was not compromised.

Texas v. Johnson (1989)
Holding: Even offensive speech such as flag burning is protected by the First Amendment.
To protest the policies of the Reagan administration, Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag outside of the Dallas City Hall. He was arrested for this act, but argued that it was symbolic speech. The Supreme Court agreed, ruling that symbolic speech is constitutionally protected even when it is offensive.