Separation of Powers, and proper function of the judiciary; federalism:

Marbury v. Madison (1803): A court may declare an act of Congress invalid or void if it is inconsistent with the Constitution. Ironically, this opinion care forth as the Supreme Court held that the Constitution did not give it the power to issue a writ of mandamus. A good source is

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819):  The state of Maryland is denied the right to tax a national bank. Generally, powers left to the states are called “reserved powers” and this case is somewhat a test of the notion of enumerated powers for the federal government.

Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819): A state may not arbitrarily alter the terms of a contract. Although this case applied to a college, in subsequent years when the same principle was used to limit states' ability to interfere with business contracts.

Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857):  The Supreme Court rules (by vicious circles) that it has no jurisdiction to declare Scott free because he was still a slave. Five of the justices ruled that portions of the Missouri Compromise were unconstitutional and that slavery could not be prohibited in territories. Depriving a slave owner his “property” also violated due process of law.

Church and State:

McCollum v. Board of Education (1948): The Supreme Court rules that Bible lessons on public school property violate the separation of church and state.

Zorach v. Clauson (1952): The Supreme Court allows public schools to support religious classes off of school property. 

Due Process:

Miranda v. Arizona (1966): The case opinion stated that before questioning criminal suspects, police must inform them of their (constitutional) right to remain silent, that any statements they make may be used against them, and that they have the right to remain silent until they have an attorney, which the state must provide if the suspects or defendants cannot afford to pay. This has led to the term “mirandize” and even the (civil) “mini Miranda” used in the debt collection business.

Death Penalty:

Furman v. Georgia (1972): The death penalty was unconstitutional in all states, but could be acceptable if less capriciously and more objectively imposed. In recent years the Court has addressed other issues, such as the death penalty and mentally disabled defendants.

Right to Privacy:

 Roe v. Wade (1973). Held that the 14th Amendment protects a right to privacy; therefore no state could prohibit abortion during the first trimester, nor during the second trimester if the woman's health or life was at stake.  

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965). Justices first recognized a "right to privacy" in striking down a law forbidding sale of contraceptives. 

Moose Lodge v. Irvis (1972). Recognizes that private clubs may maintain segregation; right to privacy and association is more important than racial balance.  

Bowers v. Hardwick (1986). There is no "fundamental right" under substantive due process to commit homosexual sodomy, because such a right is not "deeply rooted" as are rights associated with the (heterosexual) family.


Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) upheld separate but equal facilities constitutional on intrastate railways. A couple of references:

 Brown v. Board of Education (1954). "Separate but equal" is definitely not equal in public schools.

This would be followed with the “all deliberate speed” supplement in 1955.

 Affirmative Action:

 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). Unless a public institution has previously been guilty of racial discrimination, it may not use racial preferences in determining who may participate in a federally funded program. More precisely, racial preference considerations (although not outright quotas) are acceptable in certain cases, when race has been a factor in the individual's own life and when race is considered as one of many factors.

 Firefighters Local Union v. Stotts (1984). Seniority systems in layoffs do not violate federal civil rights laws.

 Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education (1986). Layoffs may not be done based on race. But public employers may sometimes establish affirmative action programs to remedy past discrimination.

Freeman v. Pitts (1992). If the school district makes a good faith attempt at desegregation and resegregation occurs by private choice, the result is not unnecessarily an unconstitutional violation of equal protection, or Brown v. Board of Education (“all deliberate speed”). So neighborhood schools are possible and forced busing[1] is not always required.


The U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 addressed the issue (of employer demanded sterilization of female workers for fetal protection, indrectly) in United Auto Workers v. Johnson Controls, where it held that women in lead-laden battery-making workplaces were protected by sex discrimination laws from employer requirements that they be sterilized.  Justices Blackmun, Marshall, Stevens, O'Connor, and Souter voted  to protect the women on the grounds of sex discrimination, while Justices Scalia and Justices White, Rehnquist and Kennedy signed separate concurrences.  Using sex discrimination laws to protect women would sidestep the forced sterilization issue for OSHA.  Justice Scalia wrote that it was irrelevant whether women placed their fetuses at risk in performing the jobs in question.  Perhaps it was not relevant to sex discrimination, but it did matter for worker protection. As far back as 1978 American Cyanamid had announced a “fetal protection policy” requiring sterilization or dismissal of some female employees.

Freedom of Speech (First Amendment):

Schenck v. United States (1919), regarding convictions for the Espionage and Sedition Acts of the World War I period. Oliver Wendel Holmes wrote, “When a nation is at war, many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its efforts that the utterances will not be endured as long as [soldiers] fight, and no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.”

Dennis et al v. United States (1951). The Smith Act of 1946 is constitutional; Congress can make it a crime to advocate overthrowing the government by force (the doctrine of “imminent threat of lawless action”). In Yates v. United States (1957) the Supreme Court constitutionally protect abstract advocacy of overthrow if not associated with a specific action or plot. These decisions could apply to terrorism.

Roth v. United States.  (1957) Obscenity cases can be decided based on the notion of “appeal to prurient interest” and “lack of redeeming social value” relative to community standards.

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (Tinker et al. v. Des Moines Independent Community School District et al.), 1969, where pupils had been suspended for wearing black armbands to school to criticize the Vietnam War.  Here is the basic link.

A good reference is Harold J. Spaeth, Harper Collins Outline: The Constitution of the United States. New York, Harper Collins, 1991.

Another good teaching reseource is Landmarkcases. Also there is a high-level summary of many cases at Cftech.

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[1] Sometimes spelled bussing