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US History Supreme Court Cases
Terms in this set (48)
Abrams vs United States
Close to end of WWI August 1918
Russian immigrants arrested for violating sedition act of 1918 (a crime of publishing negative things about US Government in any form. Group criticized US Military for recent deployment in Russia. Advocated a strike in military goods. Later, the group, led by Jacob Abrams, were sentenced to 15-20 years of prison. Court voted 7-2 to uphold the decision of Adams. Ended up having "freedom of speech during war" but US still won. Did not affect US at the time, but helped court WWII.
Adkins vs Children's Hospital
In 1918, the District of Columbia passed a law setting a minimum wage for women and children laborers. It set up a board to investigate current wages, solicit input on ideal wage levels, and ultimately set minimum wages. The law was designed to protect women and children "from conditions detrimental to their health and morals, resulting from wages which are inadequate to maintain decent standards of living." $16.50 a week for restaurants and $15 in laundry stores. These women sued the children's hospital. In a 5-3 vote, the minimum wage got struck down, as it was declared unconstitutional, and that it violated the Due Process Clause of he fifth amendment. It did not give all citizens equal rights. The Court also took issue with the provisions of the law which gave special protection to women over men. The Court claimed that, as of 1923, the civil inferiority of women in American society was at a "vanishing point," citing the recent passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended the right to vote to women, as an example of their newfound equality in American culture. Special workplace protections for women were thus unnecessary because women could protect their own interests through the political process and equal bargaining power.
Barron v. Baltimore
(1833) The case began with a lawsuit filed by John Barron against the city of Baltimore, claiming that the city had deprived him of his property in violation of the Fifth Amendment, which provides that the government may not take private property without just compensation. He alleged that the city ruined his busy wharf in Baltimore Harbor by depositing around the wharf sand and earth cleared from a road construction project that made the waters around the wharf too shallow to dock most vessels. The state court found that the city had unconstitutionally deprived Barron of private property and awarded him $4,500 in damages, to be paid by the city in compensation. An appellate court then reversed this award. Barron appealed to the Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1833. The Supreme Court, in a decision written by Chief Justice John Marshall, ruled that Barron had no claim against the state under the Bill of Rights because the Bill of Rights does not apply to the states. The Court asserted that the Constitution was created "by the people of the United States" to apply only to the government that the Constitution had created -- the federal government -- and "not for the government of the individual states." The separate states had drafted constitutions only to apply to themselves, limiting the actions of only state governments. Barron v. Baltimore's simple rule, that the Bill of Rights applies only to the federal government and not to the states, was, in the words of Chief Justice Marshall, "not of much difficulty" -- self-evident from the structure and literal language of the Constitution. However, in spite of the Court's ruling, state courts still interpreted the Bill of Rights as applying to their own governments, viewing them as reflections of the general laws in Anglo-American culture ("the common law"). The Supreme Court's ruling in Barron prevailed in federal courts, however, until passage of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War. Gradually since then, the Supreme Court has interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment, which bans states from depriving citizens of life, liberty, or property without "due process of law," as also incorporating -- or applying -- most of the amendments in the Bill of Rights against the states, including the "takings clause" of the Fifth Amendment. Modern constitutional law prohibits state governments from taking private property without just compensation.
Boerne v. Flores
In Boerne v. Flores the Court dealt with the separation of church and state. Above, a memorial of the Ten Commandments in front of the Texas State Capital building.
Reproduction courtesy of the Attorney General of TexasBoerne v. Flores (1997)
In Boerne v. Flores (1997), the Supreme Court ruled that Congress exceeded its authority when it passed a law that, among other things, prohibited the states from regulating religious uses of land. As in Cooper v. Aaron (1958), the Court asserted its primacy in matters of constitutional interpretation and struck down a governmental act that challenged that primacy. Though Boerne was originally filed as a lawsuit claiming religious freedom violations, the case was resolved through the more basic constitutional principles of separation of powers and limited government.
Boerne involved the proposed expansion of a Catholic church in Boerne, Texas. The church, built in 1923, was an historic, mission-style structure designated as a landmark by the city, which had nonetheless become too small for its growing parish. The Catholic Archbishop of San Antonio, Patrick Flores, applied for a permit to expand the church, but the City of Boerne denied it, maintaining that the church qualified as a historic structure under the city's historic preservation ordinances, and that local zoning laws forbade the expansion. In response, the archbishop filed a lawsuit against the city in a local federal court. He claimed that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed by Congress in 1993, prohibited "governments" like the City of Boerne from "substantially burdening" a person's exercise of religion unless the government proves the burden "is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that ... interest." The court dismissed Flores's suit and ruled that the RFRA was unconstitutional because it exceeded the limited powers of Congress. The archbishop appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the district court, holding that the RFRA was a constitutional exercise of congressional authority. The Supreme Court reviewed the case in 1997.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, began the Court's analysis by examining the intent of Congress in passing the RFRA in 1993. The act had been passed in response to a Supreme Court ruling that a state may restrict its citizens' religious practices so long as such restrictions are "generally applicable," or do not specifically target religion (see Oregon v. Smith , ruling a state could ban the use of peyote in Native American ceremonies under a general drug law). Congress, concerned that the case infringed upon the First Amendment's protection against laws "prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]," passed the RFRA to protect religious practices more strictly.
But did Congress have the power to pass the act? Archbishop Flores argued that it did, under Section 5 of the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment, which allows Congress to enforce the First Amendment's provisions against the states. The Supreme Court, while acknowledging the archbishop's argument to be generally true, nonetheless ruled that Congress was exceeding its power in passing the act.Boerne v. Flores underscored the frequent tensions in constitutional interpretation between the courts and representative politicians. No doubt pressured by their constituents to increase religious protections, members of Congress passed the RFRA assuming they were strengthening constitutional liberties. Instead, Congress was found to violate the Constitution itself, both by exceeding its limited powers (see McCulloch v. Maryland ) and improperly engaging in "judicial review" (see Marbury v. Madison ). Boerne, a case that touched on the most pressing issues of religious freedom, was thus resolved by the most fundamental principles of American constitutional democracy: limited government and separation of powers.
Bowers v. Hardwick
(1986) In Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not protect the right of gay adults to engage in private, consensual sodomy. The case began in August 1982, when Atlanta police arrived at the residence of Michael Hardwick to arrest him for failing to appear in court on charges of public drinking. A roommate let the police into Hardwick's home. As the police searched for Hardwick in the house, they noticed a door partly open. Peering in, they found Hardwick and a male companion engaged in oral sex. Hardwick and his partner were arrested on charges of violating the Georgia Sodomy Statute, which stated that "a person commits the offense of sodomy when he performs or submits to any sexual act involving the sex organs of one person and the mouth or anus of another" and "a person convicted of the offense of sodomy shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than 20 years." Hardwick sued the state of Georgia, claiming that the sodomy statute violated the Constitution. After Hardwick prevailed in a federal appellate court, Georgia appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1986.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Byron White, ruled that the right for gays to engage in sodomy was not protected by the Constitution, that the Georgia law was legal, and that the charges against Hardwick would stand. The Court first argued that the fundamental "right to privacy," as protected by the Constitution's Due Process Clause against the states, does not confer "the right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy." While the "right to privacy" protects intimate aspects of marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, and child rearing from state interference, it does not protect gay sodomy because "no connection between family, marriage, or procreation on the one hand and homosexual activity on the other has been demonstrated."
The Court also ruled that "the right to engage in homosexual sodomy" was not in itself a "fundamental right" protected by the Due Process Clause. The Court argued that the clause zealously protects from state interference only activities that constitute "fundamental rights," that is, activities "implicit in the concept of ordered liberty." In the history and traditions of American society, the Court could find no law construing "homosexual sodomy" as a fundamental right deserving constitutional protection. Instead, the Court observed that sodomy was banned by the original 13 colonies and outlawed by all 50 states until 1961. At the time Bowers was written in 1986, sodomy was illegal in nearly half the states.
Finally, the Court rejected Hardwick's argument that even if homosexual sodomy was not "a fundamental right," it must be protected from "irrational state regulations," arguing that Georgia's law was rational even if its purpose was to "legislate" morality. The Court asserted that all laws are, to a certain degree, rooted in morality, and thus to strike down this one because it is "moral" would necessarily strike down most laws. The Court ruled that the Georgia law was constitutional and the charges against Hardwick could stand. In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Harry Blackmun condemned the decision. He wrote that "this case is about the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men, namely the right to be let alone."
Bowers v. Hardwick, a decision largely contemptuous of homosexual behavior, was a serious legal blow to the gay community. This legal set-back, however, was not long lived. In the 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas, the Court declared a Texas antisodomy statute unconstitutional, ruling that homosexual sodomy is part of the fundamental right of adults to engage in private sexual activity.
Brown vs Board
Brown v. Board of Education (1954), now acknowledged as one of the greatest Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century, unanimously held that the racial segregation of children in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the decision did not succeed in fully desegregating public education in the United States, it put the Constitution on the side of racial equality and galvanized the nascent civil rights movement into a full revolution.
In 1954, large portions of the United States had racially segregated schools, made legal by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which held that segregated public facilities were constitutional so long as the black and white facilities were equal to each other. However, by the mid-twentieth century, civil rights groups set up legal and political, challenges to racial segregation. In the early 1950s, NAACP lawyers brought class action lawsuits on behalf of black schoolchildren and their families in Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware, seeking court orders to compel school districts to let black students attend white public schools.
One of these class actions, Brown v. Board of Education was filed against the Topeka, Kansas school board by representative-plaintiff Oliver Brown, parent of one of the children denied access to Topeka's white schools. Brown claimed that Topeka's racial segregation violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause because the city's black and white schools were not equal to each other and never could be. The federal district court dismissed his claim, ruling that the segregated public schools were "substantially" equal enough to be constitutional under the Plessy doctrine. Brown appealed to the Supreme Court, which consolidated and then reviewed all the school segregation actions together. Thurgood Marshall, who would in 1967 be appointed the first black justice of the Court, was chief counsel for the plaintiffs.
Thanks to the astute leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court spoke in a unanimous decision written by Warren himself. The decision held that racial segregation of children in public schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states that "no state shall make or enforce any law which shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Court noted that Congress, when drafting the Fourteenth Amendment in the 1860s, did not expressly intend to require integration of public schools. On the other hand, that Amendment did not prohibit integration. In any case, the Court asserted that the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal education today. Public education in the 20th century, said the Court, had become an essential component of a citizen's public life, forming the basis of democratic citizenship, normal socialization, and professional training. In this context, any child denied a good education would be unlikely to succeed in life. Where a state, therefore, has undertaken to provide universal education, such education becomes a right that must be afforded equally to both blacks and whites.
Were the black and white schools "substantially" equal to each other, as the lower courts had found? After reviewing psychological studies showing black girls in segregated schools had low racial self-esteem, the Court concluded that separating children on the basis of race creates dangerous inferiority complexes that may adversely affect black children's ability to learn. The Court concluded that, even if the tangible facilities were equal between the black and white schools, racial segregation in schools is "inherently unequal" and is thus always unconstitutional. At least in the context of public schools, Plessy v. Ferguson was overruled. In the Brown II case a decided year later, the Court ordered the states to integrate their schools "with all deliberate speed."
Opposition to Brown I and II reached an apex in Cooper v. Aaron (1958), when the Court ruled that states were constitutionally required to implement the Supreme Court's integration orders. Widespread racial integration of the South was achieved by the late 1960s and 1970s. In the meantime, the equal protection ruling in Brown spilled over into other areas of the law and into the political arena as well. Scholars now point out that Brown v. Board was not the beginning of the modern civil rights movement, but there is no doubt that it constituted a watershed moment in the struggle for racial equality in America.
Bush vs Gore
In Bush v. Gore (2000), a divided Supreme Court ruled that the state of Florida's court-ordered manual recount of vote ballots in the 2000 presidential election was unconstitutional. The case proved to be the climax of the contentious presidential race between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush. The outcome of the election hinged on Florida, where Governor Bush led Vice President Gore by about 1,800 votes the morning after Election Day. Because the returns were so close, Florida law called for an automatic machine recount of ballots. The recount resulted in a dramatic tightening of the race, leaving Bush with a bare 327-vote lead out of almost 6 million ballots cast. With the race so close, Florida law allowed Gore the option of "manual vote recounts" in the counties of his choosing. Gore opted for manual recounts in four counties with widespread complaints of voting machine malfunction: Broward, Miami-Dade, Volusia, and Palm Beach. However, Florida law also required that the state's election results be certified by the Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, within seven days of the election (by November 14, 2000). Three of the four counties, frantically laboring through the tedious manual recount, were unable to complete the process by the deadline.
On November 14, however, a Florida circuit court ruled that while Secretary Harris must respect the deadline, she could legally amend the certified results, at her own discretion, to reflect any late returns from the outstanding counties. Harris promptly announced that she would entertain late returns only if their tardiness was justified by each county in writing by 2 p.m. the following day (November 15). The three outstanding counties-Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Broward-immediately sent an explanation for the delay. Secretary Harris, however, rejected their explanations and announced that the final Florida vote count would be announced Saturday, November 18, 2000. On November 16, both Vice President Gore and Palm Beach County filed for an injunction against Secretary Harris to prevent her from certifying the election until the three counties could finish their recounts. The Florida Supreme Court issued the injunction on November 17, and on November 21 ruled that Secretary Harris must allow the counties until November 26 to finish their recounts.
Meanwhile, Miami-Dade stopped manually counting ballots, allegedly certain that it could not complete its recount by the November 26 deadline. Gore sought but failed to obtain a court order for Miami-Dade to continue counting. On November 26, with, at this point, just 537 votes separating Bush and Gore, Secretary Harris certified the election for Bush. The next day, Gore sued the secretary, alleging that the certified results were illegitimate because the recount process was not yet complete. After a local court dismissed the suit, Gore appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled on December 8 that all Florida ballots cast but not counted by voting machines ("undervotes") must be manually recounted if they had not been already. The court noted that in many counties, machines did not register votes because of defects in punch-card ballots ("hanging chads"). Governor Bush appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which expeditiously reviewed the case on December 9.
On December 12, 2000, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 "per curiam" (non-specially authored) decision, ruled that the Florida Supreme Court's recount order was unconstitutional because it granted more protection to some ballots than to others, violating the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. This clause forbids states from denying "to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Court argued that voting for a president constituted a "fundamental right" strictly guarded by the Equal Protection Clause, and that the Florida Supreme Court's order violated this right because it was "arbitrary." The Court alleged that the order contained standardless and unequal processes to divine the "intent of the voter" that were above and beyond the settled processes required by Florida election law.
December 12, 2000, the day Bush v. Gore was decided, was also the state deadline for selecting electors to formally submit Florida's choice for president to Congress. Thus, with no time left to recount votes consistent with the Court's ruling, George W. Bush became the de facto winner. While some celebrated the Court's firm stance on equal rights in the face of political controversy, others criticized the decision as hypocritical and even politically opportunistic. For example, the five justices of the majority had previously and conversely granted great deference to state court decisions, and all were Republican appointees. Yet perhaps the harshest criticism came from the Court itself. In the concluding lines of his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens proclaimed that "one thing ... is certain. Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."
Casey v. Planned Parenthood
In Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992), the Supreme Court affirmed the basic ruling of Roe v. Wade that the state is prohibited from banning most abortions. Casey also ruled, however, that states may regulate abortions so as to protect the health of the mother and the life of the fetus, and may outlaw abortions of "viable" fetuses. The abortion debates began in 1973, when the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade created a political and legal upheaval nationwide. Many states openly defied Roe by passing new laws that prohibited abortions. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, sought to circumvent Roe by imposing procedural hurdles upon women seeking abortions.
In 1982, Pennsylvania passed the Abortion Control Act, which required women to give "informed consent" before abortions could be performed and imposed a 24-hour waiting period upon women seeking abortions, during which time the women would be provided with information regarding abortions. The act also provided that minors seeking abortions first obtain informed consent from their parents, except in cases of "hardship," in which a court could waive this requirement; and that, except in "medical emergencies," a wife seeking an abortion must inform her husband of her plans prior to the procedure. Finally, the act required that all Pennsylvania abortion clinics report themselves to the state. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the Abortion Control Act violated the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court, now more ideologically conservative than at the time Roe was decided, took the case for review.
In 1992, after much anticipation, the Supreme Court released a lengthy, multipart decision ruling that Roe v. Wade was affirmed but that the bulk of the Pennsylvania law was constitutional nonetheless. Reiterating some of the reasoning in Roe, the Court first declared that a woman's decision to get an abortion implicates important "liberty interests" and "privacy interests" that the Constitution's Due Process Clause protects against state interference. Together, these interests form a "substantive right to privacy" that is protected from state interference in "marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education." This right also protects the abortion decision, the Court again argued, because it implicates equally intimate questions of a woman's personal autonomy, personal sacrifices, emotional and mental health, and fundamental right to define her life.
With the constitutional right to an abortion reaffirmed, the Court next reiterated Roe's ruling that, first, states could not ban abortions before the "viability" point (the point at which the fetus is able to sustain life outside the womb), and second, that in no case may states ban abortions that help preserve the life or health of the mother. The Court also rejected parts of Roe, holding that the state can legally pass laws protecting the life and health of the fetus or mother in far broader circumstances. For example, while in Roe the Court had held that the state could not regulate any aspect of abortions performed during the first trimester, the Court now held that states could pass such regulations affecting the first trimester, but only to safeguard a woman's health, not to limit a woman's access to abortions. In another change, the Court now held that, with the advance of life-preserving medicines, the point at which a fetus might become "viable" (the point at which states may constitutionally outlaw abortions) could be slightly before the third trimester. Finally, the Court proclaimed that any regulation that imposes a "substantial obstacle" preventing a woman from obtaining a legal abortion is an "undue burden" that violates the woman's constitutional right to an abortion.
With these new rules established, the Court examined the Pennsylvania law and measured its constitutionality. The Court ruled that one of the more controversial provisions of the law, the mandatory 24-hour waiting period, was not an undue burden and was thus constitutional. This provision's purpose, to promote well-considered abortions, was legitimate and only incidentally and slightly limited access to abortions. Next, the Court ruled that the spousal consent provision did constitute an undue burden, because husbands could potentially resort to abuse and obstruction upon learning of their spouses' abortion plans. The Court upheld the remaining portion of the law, including a parental consent provision for minors.
Casey v. Planned Parenthood, though less famous than Roe v. Wade, is actually a more important case. In Casey, a more recent Supreme Court not only affirmed Roe's abortion right, but broadened the states authority to regulate it. And yet the decision remains as controversial as Roe, not just politically or morally, but legally. The "undue burden" test is more ambiguous and difficult to apply. With Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito joining the Supreme Court in its 2005 term, it may revisit the constitutional status of the abortion right that Casey, in part, preserved.
Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (Dissent)
On the surface, the 1837 case Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge involved a local spat between two competing bridge companies. At issue was whether the U.S. Constitution permitted the Massachusetts legislature to charter the Warren Bridge Company to construct a free bridge across Boston's Charles River, when doing so would essentially destroy the business of the nearby toll-collecting Charles River Bridge. Underlying the facts of the case, however, were vital -- and deeply political -- questions regarding both economic theory and the purposes of public policy. At stake, as the justices well knew, was nothing less than the future direction of economic development for the young and burgeoning country.
First argued before the Supreme Court in 1831 -- when a deadlocked Court had been unable to reach a decision -- the case returned for reargument in 1837. In the intervening years, the personnel of the Court had shifted dramatically. Former Chief Justice John Marshall had died and several new justices had been appointed to the Court by the pro-states' rights Democratic President Andrew Jackson. The Charles River Bridge case was the first important decision issued by the Court under the new leadership of Chief Justice Roger Taney, and unsurprisingly, it marked a sharp departure from many of the Marshall Court's most important precedents. Justice Joseph Story, a holdover from the Marshall Court who had been among the former Chief's staunchest judicial allies, dissented in the case -- and the split between his opinion and that of Taney for the majority was indicative of the distance the new court had already traveled from the Marshall era.
The claim of the Charles River Bridge Co., whose bridge had since 1785 enjoyed a monopoly as the area's only means of crossing the river between Boston and Charlestown, was that when the state issued its charter, it conferred an exclusive right: until the expiration of the charter, it would be the only company permitted to operate a bridge in its vicinity. (Originally the charter was set to expire in 1826, but in 1792 the legislature extended that date for an additional 30 years.) Unfortunately for the company, however, the charter did not explicitly grant a monopoly. In his opinion for the majority, Taney opted for a strict construction of the charter, saying that if any exclusive right had been intended, the legislature would have stated so directly. Furthermore, the proper end of government was to protect "the happiness and prosperity of the community." By chartering the new bridge -- which would collect tolls initially but provide a free passage within six years of its completion -- Taney argued that the Massachusetts legislature was acting well within its rights as a legislative body, creating a public amenity and acting to protect the public interest.
Story vigorously dissented. Countering Taney's strict construction of the charter, he argued that had the Massachusetts legislature not intended to grant an exclusive right to the company, it should -- and would -- have said so. He pointed out that the Charles River Bridge Co. had undertaken great economic, political, and technological risks when it built its bridge in the 1780s, and put the case to the test of common law as well as "the common sense of every man," posing a hypothetical question: Would any sensible businessman have ventured to build the bridge, had the right to a monopoly -- and therefore a guaranteed profit -- not been implicit in the grant? By chartering a new bridge that would surely destroy the profitability of the old bridge, argued Story, Massachusetts had in effect illegally revoked its charter with the Charles River Bridge Co. To Story, the tragedy of the Court's decision in the case lay not merely in its sanction of an unconstitutional action, but more importantly in the strong precedent it set for the erosion of entrepreneurial privilege. "For my own part," he wrote, "I can conceive of no surer plan to arrest all public improvements, founded on private capital and enterprise, than to make the outlay of that capital uncertain and questionable, both as to security and as to productiveness."
Story, however, was arguing against the changing tide of popular opinion, and he knew it. "I am the last of the old race of judges," he lamented to a friend after the decision. "I stand by their solitary representative, with a pained heart, and a subdued confidence." Although an earlier generation of justices may well have decided the case differently, the Taney Court -- a product of the more populist Jacksonian era -- looked beyond former precedent in considering the case. Led by Taney, the Court feared that entrenching the property rights of old technologies would seriously impede the development of new technologies -- so that, for example, the owners of old toll highways could prevent construction of new railroads. Although the Court's interpretation of corporate property rights continues to evolve, it never returned to the same broad definitions employed by the Marshall Court and longed for nostalgically by Story in his Charles River Bridge dissent.
Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge
Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837) was one of the first decisions to find for the state in challenges invoking the Constitution's Contract Clause. Written by the Jacksonian Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the majority opinion signaled the Court's shift towards states' rights and away from the nationalism of the Marshall Court.
The battle of the bridges began in 1785, when the Massachusetts legislature granted a charter to the Charles River Bridge Company authorizing it to build and operate a bridge across the Charles River connecting Cambridge and Boston. In return for the company's promise to build and maintain the bridge, the proprietors of the corporation were granted the right to collect tolls for the duration of the charter. The new bridge was a great success and a highly profitable venture for stockholders in the company. By the 1820s, however, much of the public had turned against the company. The company kept its tolls high in spite of its extraordinary profit margins, and the Boston area's increase in population necessitated more bridges. In 1828, the state responded by granting a charter to the Warren River Bridge Company to construct a second bridge across the Charles. Not only was the Warren River Bridge built extremely close to the Charles River Bridge, it was to be a toll-free bridge once it had paid its construction costs and reaped an agreed-upon profit.
Anticipating that its only source of revenue would be destroyed by the new toll-free bridge, the proprietors of the Charles River Bridge Company sued in the state court, arguing that the new state-issued charter to the Warren Bridge violated its property rights (specifically, the right to collect tolls) granted by the 1785 charter. Lawyers for the old bridge company claimed that the state act chartering the new bridge violated the Contract Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits states from passing laws impairing the obligation of contract. They cited the Marshall Court's decision in Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) to prove that corporate charters were contracts within the meaning of the Contract Clause. After a divided opinion in the Massachusetts court, the old bridge company appealed to the Supreme Court.
Writing for a 5-2 majority, Chief Justice Taney ruled that the second charter did not violate Charles River Bridge Company's charter rights, and, therefore, Massachusetts had not violated the Constitution's Contract Clause. The problem, said Taney, was that that the charter to the old bridge company did not explicitly grant it monopoly rights. Taney and the majority, over the bitter dissent of Justice Joseph Story, refused to extend monopoly rights by implication, particularly when the interests of the community (as represented in the act of the legislature) were at stake. As the Court put it, any "ambiguity in the terms of the contract must operate against [the private company], and in favor of the public." The loss of Charles River Bridge Company's profits from the construction of the second bridge was simply irrelevant to its contract rights. Taney was also concerned that old transportation corporations (like canal companies) might defeat new transportation technology (like the railroads), by using the doctrine of implied contracts, thus holding back economic progress.
Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge marked the beginnings of a more flexible approach to the Contract Clause. The Marshall Court, in fact, had begun to move in that direction in Providence Bank v. Billings (1830), and Chief Justice Taney cited that decision in his opinion. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Story disagreed, arguing the new Court was abandoning clearly established constitutional law. Since the 1930s, the Court has held that states may significantly alter the terms of existing contracts so long as such alterations constitute a "reasonable" use of that state's police power.
Cherokee Indian Cases
In the cases Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the U.S. Supreme Court considered its powers to enforce the rights of Native American "nations" against the states. In Cherokee Nation, the Court ruled that it lacked jurisdiction (the power to hear a case) to review claims of an Indian nation within the United States. In Worcester, the Court ruled that only the United States, and not the individual states, had power to regulate or deal with the Indian nations.
In 1828, the state of Georgia passed a series of laws stripping local Cherokee Indians of their rights. The laws also authorized Cherokee removal from lands sought after by the state. In defense, the Cherokee cited treaties that they had negotiated, as an independent "nation," with the United States, guaranteeing the Cherokee nation both the land and independence. After failed negotiations with President Andrew Jackson and Congress, the Cherokee, under the leadership of John Ross, sought an injunction ("order to stop") at the Supreme Court against Georgia to prevent its carrying out these laws.
The Court, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the case and could not resolve it. The Court began by sympathizing with the Cherokees' plight, acknowledging that they had been persecuted and marginalized by America's European settlers, then asserted that Indian nations were both "foreign nations" and people within U.S. boundaries. In other words, the Cherokee, though sometimes viewed as an independent nation, were also dependent people on the nation that envelopes them. Thus, the Court asserted that "foreign nations," as used in the Constitution, could not include "Indian nations." Because the Constitution only authorizes the Supreme Court to hear cases brought by "foreign nations," not "Indian nations," the Court was not authorized to entertain this case and dismissed it. Meanwhile, in 1830, Georgia passed another law requiring its citizens to obtain a state license before dwelling inside the Cherokee Nation. A group of missionaries residing there, including Samuel Austin Worcester, refused to obtain such a license. The missionaries were known supporters of Cherokee resistance to Georgia's removal efforts. Worcester and a fellow missionary were indicted by a Georgia court, brought to trial, and convicted. Worcester appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that the Georgia court lacked authority to convict them.
On review of the case, the Supreme Court in Worcester v. Georgia ruled that because the Cherokee Nation was a separate political entity that could not be regulated by the state, Georgia's license law was unconstitutional and Worcester's conviction should be overturned. The Court first pointed to evidence proving that the Native American communities were conceived of as "separate nations" dating back to the time of early colonial America. The Court then argued that today's "treaties and laws of the United States [also] contemplate the Indian territory as completely separated from that of the states; and provide that all intercourse with them shall be carried on exclusively by the government of the union." Therefore, only the United States can negotiate the terms of Indian lands and the use thereof. States lack constitutional power to deal with such "nations" at all. Thus, Georgia could not pass the license law and convict Worcester for violation of that law.
The Supreme Court's ruling, however, was neither followed by Georgia nor enforced by the U.S. government. President Andrew Jackson, sensitive to Georgia's claims of independence at a time when the states wielded considerable power, had no interest in enforcing the Court's decree. The missionaries remained imprisoned until 1833, when a new Georgia governor negotiated for their release. The Georgia Cherokees themselves were forcibly relocated in 1838, pursuant to a U.S. treaty, to present-day Oklahoma ("the Trail of Tears"). Today, the substantive ruling in Worcester is no longer binding: the Supreme Court holds that, to a certain extent, a state may regulate the Indian territories within its boundaries.
Cooley v. Board of Wardens
In Cooley v. Board of Wardens (1852) the question before the Supreme Court was whether the grant of power to Congress in Article I Section 8 of the Constitution automatically prohibited all state legislation touching interstate commerce. Speaking for the Court, Justice Benjamin Curtis ruled that when local circumstances made it necessary the states could regulate interstate commerce, providing that such regulations did not conflict with federal law.
In 1803, the state of Pennsylvania passed a law requiring all ships entering and leaving the Port of Philadelphia to hire a local pilot or be subjected to a fine of one-half the pilotage fee. Fines were paid to the Board of Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia, which used the payments to support retired local pilots and their families. Aaron Cooley owned a ship that entered the Port of Philadelphia without hiring a local pilot. The Board of Wardens imposed fines on Cooley that went unpaid. The board then brought an action against Cooley in a Pennsylvania court for collection of his unpaid debts.
In defense, Cooley argued that the Pennsylvania law was an unconstitutional regulation of interstate commerce because it acted as a "duty" against out-of-state shippers for the benefit of local ship pilots. Cooley claimed that Congress had exclusive power to regulate interstate commerce, which preempted state regulation in the field. The state court rejected that argument and ruled against Cooley. The judgment was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case in 1852.
The Court held that the Pilot Law was constitutional and affirmed the state court's ruling against Cooley. The Constitution's Commerce Clause grants, "Congress shall have power to regulate commerce...among the several states." The Court acknowledged that the Pennsylvania law "regulated commerce between the several states" because it involved navigation and concerned the activities of commercial shippers. Nevertheless, the Court ruled that Congress lacked exclusive power over interstate commerce, noting that the actual text of the Commerce Clause does not expressly exclude the states from regulating aspects of interstate commerce. Finally, the Court devised a method to allocate state and federal power over interstate commerce: the subject of the commerce involved. If the subject is more "national" in nature (such as duties imposed on borders), it is exclusively within the federal government's domain of regulation, even if the federal government has not legislated on the matter. If the subject is local in character and Congress has not acted on this subject, it is within the domain of state regulation (such as requirements to carry local pilots on ships).
Cooley v. Board of Wardens set in place a pragmatic approach to interstate commerce regulation, one that left the Court free to settle future disputes on a case-by-case basis. Today, the Court generally holds unconstitutional any state law found to impose commercial rules benefiting in-state traders at the expense of out-of-state traders (the "Dormant Commerce Clause" theory).
Cooper vs Aaron
In Cooper v. Aaron (1958), the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Arkansas could not pass legislation undermining the Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. In establishing that the states were bound by its rulings, the Supreme Court affirmed that its interpretation of the Constitution was the "supreme law of the land."
In 1954, the Supreme Court, in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education, declared that the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution forbade the states from segregating students in their public schools on account of race. In a 1955 follow-up decision (Brown v. Board of Education II), the Court directed all federal district courts to monitor the states' compliance with the Brown decision. The states were ordered to integrate their schools "with all deliberate speed." Soon thereafter, the school board of Little Rock, Arkansas, developed a court-approved plan to integrate its segregated school system. However, around the same time, the Arkansas governor and legislature passed new state laws and constitutional amendments outlawing integration in the state.
The Little Rock school board and the state clashed on September 4, 1957, when the Arkansas National Guard, under the direction of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, prevented a group of nine African American students ("The Little Rock Nine") from enrolling at Little Rock's Central High School pursuant to the school board's integration plan. Under threat of violence, a local federal court nevertheless ordered the school board to carry out the plan. The next day, again meeting resistance from the Arkansas National Guard, the U.S. government obtained an injunction (legal order to stop) against Governor Faubus in the local federal court, forcing Faubus to withdraw the state national guard. President Dwight Eisenhower then sent in federal national guard troops to protect the nine students from mobs. By the end of September, the students were finally able to enter the school and began attending classes there.
The drama had not ended, however. In February 1958, the Little Rock school board petitioned the local federal court to approve postponing their integration plan. The board cited "chaos, bedlam and turmoil" that had engulfed Central High School since the African American students enrolled. The court agreed, ordering that the students be removed from the school and that plans for integration be delayed another two and a half years. Acting on behalf of the Little Rock Nine, the NAACP appealed the decision to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court's decision and held that the delay would violate the constitutional rights of the Africa American students. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the case.
The Supreme Court unanimously held that the constitutional rights of the African American students could not be sacrificed for the sake of "order and peace" in public high schools. The African American students could thus remain at Central High School and the school board's original integration plan must go forward. The Court did not stop there, however, and insisted that the governor and legislature of Arkansas were bound by its orders. First, the state government is bound to the terms of the U.S. Constitution under the Supremacy and Oath Clauses (see Article VI). Second, because the Supreme Court is the "voice" of the U.S. Constitution (see Marbury v. Madison ), the state government is bound to the Supreme Court's decisions and may not annul them with legislation, amendments, or orders.
If Brown v. Board of Education provided the foundation for school integration in the 1950s and 1960s, Cooper v. Aaron provided the muscle. Though Cooper simply reiterated constitutional principles that were already accepted, the decision affirmed the power of the federal courts to enforce federal civil rights laws and court decisions against the states, and the primacy of the Supreme Court in defining what the Constitution requires. As the Court declared, the states' compliance with the principles of civil rights, as articulated by the federal courts, is "indispensable for the protection of the freedoms guaranteed by our fundamental charter for all of us. Our constitutional ideal of equal justice under law is thus made a living truth."
Dred Scott v. Sandford (Dissent)
The events leading up to the infamous 1857 Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford were decades in the making. In 1834, Dred Scott, a slave of Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon in the U.S. Army, left the slave state of Missouri to accompany his master first to the free state of Illinois and then to the free Wisconsin Territory. In 1846, years after his eventual return to Missouri and months after the subsequent death of his owner, Scott sued Emerson's widow (to whom title to Scott and his family had passed) for his and his family's freedom, on the basis of the time they had spent in the free state and territory. Established legal precedent in Missouri, in fact, upheld the "once free, always free" principle, and Scott's suit should have been a relatively routine process.
A legal technicality, however, complicated the case and delayed its outcome for years, during which time the political tensions around the issue of slavery continued to heighten. After Scott finally won his freedom in a lower Missouri court, J.F.A. Sanford, Mrs. Emerson's brother and the legal administrator of her property, appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which reversed precedent and decided against Scott. Scott's attorneys then filed the suit in federal court. In 1856, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. (Due to a misspelling of Sanford's name on court papers, the case was entered as Scott v. Sandford.) Although Scott's case was fraught with legal complications, the basic issue before the Court was whether, after spending time in a free state and a free territory, Scott remained a slave.
Each of the nine justices wrote a slightly different opinion in the case; ultimately, however, they voted 7-2 against Scott. In March 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered the majority opinion. Drawing a distinction between state and federal citizenship, Taney held that although some states extended citizenship to blacks, under the terms of the U.S. Constitution, blacks were not -- and never could be -- citizens of the United States. At the time of the Constitution's ratification, Taney wrote, blacks were "regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights that the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his own benefit." Because Scott was not a U.S. citizen, said Taney, he had no standing to sue in federal court.
Taney's holding on standing should have decided the case, but he continued in an effort to settle the brewing sectional battle over slavery. He further held that, because the abolition of slavery in the territories was beyond the constitutional power of Congress and deprived slave owners of their property without due process of law, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (by which Missouri had been admitted to the Union as a slave state and the further expansion of slavery into all federal territories falling north of the southern boundary of Missouri was prohibited) had been unconstitutional. The decision marked only the second time in its history -- and the first since the 1803 case Marbury v. Madison -- that the Court had invoked its power of judicial review to overturn federal legislation.
Benjamin Curtis, a Massachusetts Whig who as a former state legislator had defended the Fugitive Slave Act on constitutional grounds -- and whose confirmation to the Court had been briefly held up by abolitionist opposition in the Senate -- found himself in the unlikely role of dissenter. Curtis' dissent was lengthy, offering a point-by-point rebuttal to each of Taney's assertions; it was also angry, although not out of any abolitionist zeal but rather due to his belief that Taney had used the Court to advance a distinctly political agenda. Curtis did not contest the basic distinction Taney had made between state and national citizenship. However, he held that the road to national citizenship was through state citizenship: any person deemed by any state to be its citizen was also, by definition, a citizen of the United States. In this way, a constitutional path to U.S. citizenship lay open to blacks.
Curtis conducted an extensive historical review of statutes, case law, and demographic records and asserted that in five of the original 13 states, blacks had held citizenship at the time of the Constitution's ratification -- and that they had therefore voted and participated in the process of its ratification. It was "not true, in point of fact, that the Constitution was made exclusively by the white race," he wrote. Therefore, blacks were "in every sense part of the people of the United States [as] they were among those for whom and whose posterity the Constitution was ordained and established." Significantly, however, although Curtis saw the Constitution as providing for the possibility of black citizenship, he stopped far short of endorsing full political equality for blacks -- and, in fact, would later oppose the full extension of the rights of national citizenship to blacks offered by the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Court's decision in Scott v. Sandford engendered a political maelstrom, inflaming sectional tensions between North and South and contributing to the run up to the Civil War. Frustrated by the political turn taken by the Court and by his antagonistic relationship with Taney, Curtis resigned from the Court less than six months after the decision. Abolitionists distributed copies of his dissent widely in pamphlet form, but Curtis remained an unwilling hero to their cause and kept himself out of the political fray. After the conclusion of the war, he strongly opposed the radical Republican vision for Reconstruction, and defended President Andrew Johnson in his impeachment trial.
Dred Scott v. Sandford
In Dred Scott v. Sandford (argued 1856 -- decided 1857), the Supreme Court ruled that Americans of African descent, whether free or slave, were not American citizens and could not sue in federal court. The Court also ruled that Congress lacked power to ban slavery in the U.S. territories. Finally, the Court declared that the rights of slaveowners were constitutionally protected by the Fifth Amendment because slaves were categorized as property.
The controversy began in 1833, when Dr. John Emerson, a surgeon with the U.S. Army, purchased Dred Scott, a slave, and eventually moved Scott to a base in the Wisconsin Territory. Slavery was banned in the territory pursuant to the Missouri Compromise. Scott lived there for the next four years, hiring himself out for work during the long stretches when Emerson was away. In 1840, Scott, his new wife, and their young children moved to Louisiana and then to St. Louis with Emerson. Emerson died in 1843, leaving the Scott family to his wife, Eliza Irene Sanford. In 1846, after laboring and saving for years, the Scotts sought to buy their freedom from Sanford, but she refused. Dred Scott then sued Sanford in a state court, arguing that he was legally free because he and his family had lived in a territory where slavery was banned. In 1850, the state court finally declared Scott free. However, Scott's wages had been withheld pending the resolution of his case, and during that time Mrs. Emerson remarried and left her brother, John Sanford, to deal with her affairs. Mr. Sanford, unwilling to pay the back wages owed to Scott, appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. The court overturned the lower court's decision and ruled in favor of Sanford. Scott then filed another lawsuit in a federal circuit court claiming damages against Sanford's brother, John F.A. Sanford, for Sanford's alleged physical abuse against him. The jury ruled that Scott could not sue in federal court because he had already been deemed a slave under Missouri law. Scott appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1856. Due to a clerical error at the time, Sanford's name was misspelled in court records.
The Supreme Court, in an infamous opinion written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to take Scott's case because Scott was, or at least had been, a slave. First, the Court argued that they could not entertain Scott's case because federal courts, including the Supreme Court, are courts of "peculiar and limited jurisdiction" and may only hear cases brought by select parties involving limited claims. For example, under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, federal courts may only hear cases brought by "citizens" of the United States. The Court ruled that because Scott was "a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves," and thus "[not] a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution," Scott was not a citizen and had no right to file a lawsuit in federal court.
Second, the Court argued that Scott's status as a citizen of a free state did not necessarily give him status as a U.S. citizen. While the states were free to create their own citizenship criteria, and had done so before the Constitution even came into being, the Constitution gives Congress exclusive authority to define national citizenship. Moreover, the Court argued that even if Scott was deemed "free" under the laws of a state, he would still not qualify as an American citizen because he was black. The Court asserted that, in general, U.S. citizens are only those who were members of the "political community" at the time of the Constitution's creation, along with those individuals' heirs, and slaves were not part of this community. Finally, the Court argued that, in any case, Scott could not be defined as free by virtue of his residency in the Wisconsin Territory, because Congress lacked the power to ban slavery in U.S. territories. The Court viewed slaves as "property," and the Fifth Amendment forbids Congress from taking property away from individuals without just compensation. Justice Benjamin Curtis issued a strong dissent.
The decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford exacerbated risisng sectional tensions between the North and South. Although the Missouri Compromise had already been repealed prior to the case, the decision nonetheless appeared to validate the Southern version of national power, and to embolden pro-slavery Southerners to expand slavery to all reaches of the nation. Unsurprisingly, antislavery forces were outraged by the decision, empowering the newly formed Republican Party and helping fuel violence between slaveowners and abolitionists on the frontier. Following the Civil War, the Reconstruction Congress passed, and the states ratified, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, all of which directly overturned the Dred Scott decision. Today, all people born or naturalized in the United States are American citizens who may bring suit in federal court.
Ex parte Milligan
In Ex parte Milligan (1866), the Supreme Court ruled that a prisoner's ability to challenge his or her detention could only be suspended for a brief and finite period of time, and only if the situation compelled it. The Court also ruled that military tribunals generally lack jurisdiction over civilians who are not connected with or engaged in armed conflict. Assessing the rights of an Indiana citizen accused of plotting against Union forces during the Civil War, the basic rules defined in Milligan are quite relevant today.
On October 5, 1864, Lamdin P. Milligan was taken into custody by the U.S. government on various charges of insubordination against the Union. The government accused Milligan of joining "a secret society known as the Order of American Knights ... for the purpose of overthrowing" the government, "holding communication with the enemy; conspiring to seize munitions of war stored in the arsenals; to liberate prisoners of war; [and] resisting the draft." Though he was an American citizen and resident and citizen of the state of Indiana, Milligan was tried before a "military tribunal" in Indiana and convicted on all charges. He was then sentenced to death by hanging and moved to a military prison.
Days before his scheduled execution, Milligan petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in a local federal court. The term "habeas corpus" is Latin for "you [should] have the body," and a "writ of habeas corpus" is a court order to release a prisoner being held unjustly by the government. In his petition, Milligan argued that the military tribunal had no jurisdiction (power) to try him because he was an American citizen living in a non-rebellious state (Indiana) and the laws thus gave him a right to a criminal trial in a civilian court. In 1866, shortly after the end of the Civil War, the Supreme Court agreed to review Milligan's petition. (In 1863, the Court had effectively ducked a similar case, ex parte Vallandigham, holding that since no act explicitly granted the Court jurisdiction over the military tribunals, it lacked jurisdiction to review the appeals of those convicted under their auspices.)
The Supreme Court ruled that the military tribunal lacked jurisdiction over Milligan and that he should have been tried in a federal civilian court. The Court first noted that Milligan was an American citizen who was a resident of a non-rebellious state, Indiana, during the Civil War. The Court also noted that Milligan was not connected to the armed forces and had not been fighting Union forces when he was captured, and that the civil courts of Indiana were operational at the time. Accordingly, the Court also argued Milligan was denied basic constitutional rights in being subjected to a military tribunal. These included the right to trial by jury, the right to be sentenced separately from trial, and various evidentiary and procedural rights incident to civilian trials. Together, the Court concluded that the laws and Constitution demand that Milligan, as with any other civilian, not be tried by a military tribunal if, as in this case, there is a civilian court available instead. To find otherwise, the Court opined, would mean that "republican government is a failure, and there is an end of liberty regulated by law." The Court warned that "Martial law" in such a system "destroys every guarantee of the Constitution, and effectually renders the 'military independent of and superior to the civil power.'" Ex parte Milligan was a stalwart affirmation of basic rights and liberties most Americans take for granted today.
Fletcher v. Peck
In Fletcher v. Peck (1810), the Supreme Court ruled that a grant to a private land company was a contract within the meaning of the Contract Clause of the Constitution, and once made could not be repealed. In addition to establishing a strict interpretation of the Contract Clause, the case marked the first time the Supreme Court struck down a state law on constitutional grounds.
The dispute in the case arose in 1795, when the Georgia legislature granted some 35 million acres of state land, involving vast tracts around the Yazoo River in what is now Alabama and Mississippi, to private speculators for the bargain price of 1.5 cents per acre. It was soon discovered that all but one of the legislators who voted for the grant had been bribed. In 1796, a new state legislature repealed the fraudulent grant; in 1800, John Peck purchased some land that was part of the 1795 grant, and in 1803, he sold 13,000 acres of it to Robert Fletcher for $3,000. When Fletcher discovered the sale of the land had been voided by state law, however, he brought suit against Peck for damages, claiming Peck had lied to him in promising he had good title to the land. A federal circuit court ruled for Peck, and Fletcher appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The question before the Court was whether the act of 1796 (repealing the act of 1795) was a violation of Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution -- in other words, whether, once the state of Georgia had finalized the original sale of the land, it could constitutionally repeal that sale, or whether the Constitution prohibited it from doing so.
The Supreme Court, in a 4-1 decision written by Chief Justice John Marshall, ruled that Georgia had violated the Contract Clause of the Constitution when it repealed the grants. The Court conceded that the fraud underlying the grants was "deplorable," but it rejected Fletcher's argument that Georgia had the "sovereign power," as the agent of the people, to repeal this act of public corruption. The Court reasoned that Peck was an innocent third party who had entered into two valid contracts: first when he paid for the land from the original grantee, and second when he sold the land to Fletcher. Peck thus fell outside the original fraud the Georgia legislature sought to undo in its repeal. As Marshall put it, "When a law is in its nature a contract, when absolute rights have vested under that contract, a repeal of the law cannot divest those rights." Fletcher's suit against Peck was dismissed, and Georgia's law repealing the grants was struck down.
The Court's strict interpretation of the Contract Clause was modified 17 years later by the Taney Court in Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge (1837), but for nearly a century the decision served as a major barrier to state economic regulation of business corporations. In Home Building & Loan Association v. Blaisdell (1934), as a response to the massive economic dislocation of the Great Depression, the Court ruled that the state could constitutionally alter the terms of any contract so long as the alteration is rationally related to protecting the public's welfare.
Frontiero v. Richardson
In Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), the Supreme Court ruled that a law classifying benefits on the basis of gender violated the Constitution, but it could not agree on why. Four justices ruled, for the first time, that laws classifying individuals based on gender are "inherently suspect" and unconstitutional if they do not "narrowly" serve some "compelling" government interest. Another bloc on the Court, however, maintained that such laws are only unconstitutional if they are "irrational." The case began when Sharron Frontiero, a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, applied for armed service benefits for her husband under a congressional statute that stated "that members of the uniformed services with dependents are entitled to an increased basic allowance for quarters" and "a member's dependents are provided comprehensive medical and dental care." The statute also provided, however, that if the dependant is "a husband," he must be dependent for more than half his support to qualify. In cases where the dependant is "a wife," by contrast, the benefits are conferred automatically and irrespective of the need for support.
Frontiero failed to adequately "demonstrate" in her benefits application that her husband was dependent on her for more than half his support. Her application was therefore denied. Frontiero sued the Secretary of Defense in a federal district court, claiming that the congressional statute discriminated against women in violation of the Constitution. She argued that the statute imposed unnecessary barriers to female officers in applying for benefits and gave them fewer benefits compared to similarly situated male officers. The district court found no constitutional violation and denied Frontiero relief. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, in an 8-1 decision, ruled that the statute was unconstitutional because it impermissibly discriminated against women. Four of the justices, in a plurality opinion written by Justice William Brennan, ruled that the statute was unconstitutional because gender discrimination was "inherently suspect": laws classifying on the basis of gender should be presumed unconstitutional and subjected to "strict scrutiny," in which a law is declared unconstitutional unless the Court finds it provides the only means available (is "narrowly tailored") to serve a "compelling" government interest. The strict scrutiny test provides the greatest level of constitutional protection for the designated group. As with race classification laws, the plurality argued that gender classification laws should be construed as "inherently suspect" because of a history of discrimination against women, "which, in practical effect, put women, not on a pedestal, but in a cage," and because gender is an immutable characteristic that cannot be changed in response to a law.
Accordingly, the plurality reviewed the statute in question under the strict scrutiny test. The U.S. government argued that the statute was justified because it administered benefits more cheaply; because females are far more likely to be dependent on male officers than the reverse, an automatic conferral of benefits to female dependents saves time and money. The Court responded that imposing the one-half dependency rule on both male and female dependents provides a better means of saving money without discriminating against women.
Another three justices, in a concurrence written by Justice Lewis Powell, ruled that the statute was unconstitutional only because it was "irrational." The Powell bloc rejected the plurality's contention that women are a "suspect class," and argued such a ruling would hazardously upend all American laws involving gender and usurp from the states the decision in the ongoing debate over whether women should be considered a "suspect class" deserving absolute equality with men in every law. (The states were currently debating whether to adopt the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which would essentially do this; the amendment was ultimately never ratified.) Because a majority of the justices found the statute unconstitutional, it was invalidated. However, because the majority could not agree on the justification for invalidating the law, the decision failed to provide guidelines for evaluating gender discrimination in future cases.
Frontiero v. Richardson coincided with a revolution in gender perception in America. By the early 1970s, more of American society thought of gender roles, like racial roles, as socially constructed stereotypes, not innately grounded traits. The Court's disagreement as to which level of scrutiny should apply to gender classifications (strict or rational) was resolved by the 1976 case of Craig v. Boren, in which the Court ruled that classifications based on gender should be subjected to an "intermediate scrutiny" test, in which a challenged law is found unconstitutional unless it is "substantially related" to an "important governmental interest." As of 2006, some contend that the Supreme Court now imposes a test somewhere between intermediate and strict scrutiny in gender classification cases (see, e.g., United States v. Virginia ).
Gibbons v. Ogden
Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) vastly expanded the powers of Congress through a single clause in the Constitution: the Commerce Clause of Article I, Section 8. The Court ruled that under that clause Congress had powers to regulate any aspect of commerce that crossed state lines, including modes of transportation, and that such regulation preempted conflicting regulation by the states. Since Gibbons, the Commerce Clause has provided the basis for sweeping congressional power over a multitude of national issues.
The dispute in Gibbons concerned competing claims of rival steamship franchises. The state of New York gave Aaron Ogden an exclusive license to operate steamboat ferries between New Jersey and New York City on the Hudson River. Thomas Gibbons, another steamboat operator, ran two ferries along the same route. Ogden sought an injunction against Gibbons in a New York state court, claiming that the state had given him exclusive rights to operate the route. In response, Gibbons claimed he had the right to operate on the route pursuant to a 1793 act of Congress regulating coastal commerce. The New York court found for Ogden and ordered Gibbons to cease operating his steamships; on appeal, the New York Supreme Court affirmed the order. Gibbons appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1824.
Chief Justice John Marshall ruled for Gibbons, holding that New York's exclusive grant to Ogden violated the federal licensing act of 1793. In reaching its decision, the Court interpreted the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution for the first time. The clause reads that "Congress shall have power to regulate commerce ... among the several States." According to the Court, the word "commerce" included not just articles in interstate trade but also the "intercourse" among the states, including navigation.
Next, the Court examined the clause's phrase "commerce among the several States," concluding that the word "among" means "intermingled with." Accordingly, Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce does not "stop at the external boundary line of each State, but may be introduced into the interior." In other words, Congress may pass any law that regulates commerce, so long as that commerce is not wholly confined within a single state, and its power to regulate such commerce is plenary. Under this interpretation of the Commerce Clause, Congress' clearly had the authority to regulate the commercial steamboat route between New York and New Jersey. It was assumed that the licensing act of 1793 did this and that the New York law in question was in conflict with it. Thus, the New York law was unconstitutional and New York's injunction against Gibbons was overturned. Gibbons was free to operate his steamships.
Gibbons v. Ogden set the stage for future expansion of congressional power over commercial activity and a vast range of other activities once thought to come within the jurisdiction of the states. After Gibbons, Congress had preemptive authority over the states to regulate any aspect of commerce crossing state lines. Thus, any state law regulating in-state commercial activities (e.g., workers' minimum wages in an in-state factory) could potentially be overturned by Congress if that activity was somehow connected to interstate commerce (e.g., that factory's goods were sold across state lines). Indeed, more than any other case, Ogden set the stage for the federal government's overwhelming growth in power into the 20th century.
Gideon v. Wainwright
In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution requires the states to provide defense attorneys to criminal defendants charged with serious offenses who cannot afford lawyers themselves. The case began with the 1961 arrest of Clarence Earl Gideon. Gideon was charged with breaking and entering into a Panama City, Florida, pool hall and stealing money from the hall's vending machines. At trial, Gideon, who could not afford a lawyer himself, requested that an attorney be appointed to represent him. He was told by the judge that Florida only provided attorneys to indigent defendants charged with crimes that might result in the death penalty if they were found guilty. After he was sentenced to five years in prison, Gideon filed a habeas corpus petition (or petition for release from unjust imprisonment) to the Florida Supreme Court, claiming that his conviction was unconstitutional because he lacked a defense attorney at trial. After the Florida Supreme Court denied his petition, Gideon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed his case in 1963.
The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision written by Justice Hugo Black, ruled that Gideon's conviction was unconstitutional because Gideon was denied a defense lawyer at trial. The Court ruled that the Constitution's Sixth Amendment gives defendants the right to counsel in criminal trials where the defendant is charged with a serious offense even if they cannot afford one themselves; it states that "in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." Before the 1930s, the Supreme Court interpreted this language as only forbidding the state from denying a defense attorney at trial. From the 1930s on, however, the Court interpreted the amendment as requiring the state to provide defense attorneys in capital trials (see Powell v. Alabama ).
In Gideon, the Court took this jurisprudence further, ruling that the Sixth Amendment requires states to provide defense attorneys to any indigent criminal defendant charged with a felony (generally a crime punishable by imprisonment of more than one year). First, the Court noted that the states, just like the federal government, are bound to the Sixth Amendment because the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause applies the key provisions of the Bill of Rights against the states. Second, the Court argued that the Sixth Amendment requires a state to provide defense lawyers if necessary because such lawyers are essential to a "fair trial." Observed Justice Black, "That government hires lawyers to prosecute and defendants who have the money hire lawyers to defend are the strongest indications of the widespread belief that lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries." The Court noted that America's criminal justice system is "adversarial," meaning that the state assumes and uses its resources to establish the defendant's guilt before the defendant is proven guilty in a court of law. Because, in this adversarial system, "even the intelligent and educated layman has small and sometimes no skill in the science of law," the Court easily concluded that the presence of defense counsel is "fundamental and essential to fair trials" in the United States. Gideon was appointed counsel, eventually retried, and acquitted on all charges. In 1972, in Argersinger v. Hamlin, the Supreme Court further extended the right to legal counsel to include any defendant charged with a crime punishable by imprisonment.
Gideon v. Wainwright was part of the Supreme Court's innovative approach to criminal justice in the 1950s and 1960s. The Warren Court extended an unprecedented array of rights to criminal defendants, including the right to counsel in interrogations, the right to remain silent during arrest and questioning, and the right to be informed of these rights (see Miranda v. Arizona ). The Court's affirmation of the constitutional rights of criminal defendants also included less famous cases. For example, in Griffin v. Illinois (1956), the Court ruled that states must provide trial transcripts to criminal defendants seeking appeal. In all of these cases, the Supreme Court recognized that, in a society of profoundly unequal resources, adversarial criminal justice, and ignorance of complex law, justice can only prevail if the state provides an indigent defendant with an attorney.
Griswold v. Connecticut
In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Supreme Court ruled that a state's ban on the use of contraceptives violated the right to marital privacy. The case concerned a Connecticut law that criminalized the encouragement or use of birth control. The 1879 law provided that "any person who uses any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purposes of preventing conception shall be fined not less than forty dollars or imprisoned not less than sixty days." The law further provided that "any person who assists, abets, counsels, causes, hires or commands another to commit any offense may be prosecuted and punished as if he were the principle offender."
Estelle Griswold, the executive director of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and Dr. C. Lee Buxton, doctor and professor at Yale Medical School, were arrested and found guilty as accessories to providing illegal contraception. They were fined $100 each. Griswold and Buxton appealed to the Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut, claiming that the law violated the U.S. Constitution. The Connecticut court upheld the conviction, and Griswold and Buxton appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1965.
The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision written by Justice William O. Douglas, ruled that the law violated the "right to marital privacy" and could not be enforced against married people. Justice Douglas contended that the Bill of Right's specific guarantees have "penumbras," created by "emanations from these guarantees that help give them life and opinion." In other words, the "spirit" of the First Amendment (free speech), Third Amendment (prohibition on the forced quartering of troops), Fourth Amendment (freedom from searches and seizures), Fifth Amendment (freedom from self-incrimination), and Ninth Amendment (other rights), as applied against the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, creates a general "right to privacy" that cannot be unduly infringed.
Further, this right to privacy is "fundamental" when it concerns the actions of married couples, because it "is of such a character that it cannot be denied without violating those fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of our civil and political institutions." Because a married couple's use of contraception constitutes a "fundamental" right, Connecticut must prove to the Court that its law is "compelling" and "absolutely necessary" to overcome that right (i.e., the "strict scrutiny test"). Because Connecticut failed to prove this, the law was struck down as applied.
Other justices, while agreeing that marital privacy is a "fundamental right" and that the Connecticut law should be struck down, disagreed with Justice Douglas as to where in the Constitution such a "fundamental right" exists. In his concurrence, Justice Arthur Goldberg argued that the Ninth Amendment, which states that the Bill of Rights does not exhaust all the rights contained by the people, allows the Court to find the "fundamental right to marital privacy" without having to ground it in a specific constitutional amendment. In another concurrence, Justice John Marshall Harlan II maintained that a "fundamental right to marital privacy" exists only because marital privacy has traditionally been protected by American society. Finally, in yet another concurrence, Justice Byron White argued that a fundamental right to marital privacy constitutes a liberty under the Due Process Clause, and is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment against the states.
Yet, for all their differences, the majority in Griswold v. Connecticut agreed that the "right to privacy," in addition to being "fundamental," was "substantive." In West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937), the Court had rejected the idea that the Constitution protects "substantive rights," i.e., protects certain activities from government interference that are not explicitly mentioned in the Bill of Rights. In Griswold, however, it ruled that "substantive rights" do exist in non-economic areas like "the right to privacy," even if they do not in economic activities like the right to contract. Over the next 10 years, the Court expanded this fundamental, substantive "right to privacy" beyond the marital bedroom, ruling that the state could not ban the use of contraceptives by anyone (Eisenstadt v. Baird ), and that the state could not ban most abortions (Roe v. Wade ).
Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger
In the cases Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), the Supreme Court ruled that the use of affirmative action in school admission is constitutional if it treats race as one factor among many, its purpose is to achieve a "diverse" class, and it does not substitute for individualized review of applicant, but is unconstitutional if it automatically increases an applicant's chances over others simply because of his or her race. The Grutter case involved a lawsuit against the admission process at the University of Michigan's Law School. The mission of the law school's intensely competitive admission process was to achieve "a mix of students with varying backgrounds and experiences who will respect and learn from one another." While test scores and undergraduate performance were the most important criteria in selecting applicants for admission, they were not determinitive. The school also examined a host of subjective factors in making its admissions decisions, including the race and ethnicity of the candidates. "Underrepresented" racial and ethnic minority applicants (i.e., African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans) were looked upon favorably because they helped achieve the school's mission of student diversity. Evidence suggested that without the school's affirmative action policy, an underrepresented minority's average chance of admission would decrease from 35 percent to 10 percent.
Barbara Grutter, a white Michigan resident whose application was rejected, sued the school in a lower federal court alleging that its admissions policy was unconstitutional. Grutter alleged that the school made race a "predominate" factor in admissions decisions and that the school intentionally discriminated against whites, and that this violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids states from denying "to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law." In its defense, the school maintained that it did not employ racial quotas or percentages in its admissions process but simply sought a "critical mass" of underrepresented minorities in each entering class. The lower court found for Grutter, ruling that the law school's admissions policy was unconstitutional. After a federal appeals court reversed the decision, Grutter appealed to the Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 2003.
Applying the logic of Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, ruled that the University of Michigan's affirmative action program was constitutional. The Court argued that while the law school's race-conscious admissions scheme was presumptively unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause because it intentionally discriminated on the basis of race, the school's interest in promoting "student diversity" was sufficiently "compelling," and its case-by-case admissions process was "narrowly tailored" enough, to withstand strict scrutiny. "Student diversity" was important enough to pass constitutional muster because it both counters racial stereotypes and ensures the presence of racial minorities in the nation's elite. The Court also argued that the law school's case-by-case, subjective admissions process was "narrowly tailored" enough to be constitutional because it did not employ a quota system and provided for individualized review of applicants. Instead, the school construed membership in a minority race as merely a "plus" factor among many weighed in the admissions decision.
Gratz v. Bollinger involved a challenge to the University of Michigan's undergraduate affirmative action program. The university ranked each applicant on a 150-point scale, with 100 points generally guaranteeing admission. Membership in a historically discriminated-against racial group, or "attendance at a predominately minority or disadvantaged high school," resulted in an automatic bonus of 20 points on the scale. Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hammacher, both white residents of Michigan, were denied admission to the university. They subsequently sued the university in a federal court, alleging that its admissions process was unconstitutional. The federal court agreed, and the case was appealed up to the Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 2003.
The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, ruled that the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions program was unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause. The Court noted that the university automatically conferred points based on an applicant's race, thereby placing some minority candidates ahead of nonminorities in admissions rankings. The Court argued that this system made "race a decisive factor for virtually every minimally qualified underrepresented minority applicant." Thus, because the means employed by the affirmative action program were not "narrowly tailored enough" to withstand strict scrutiny, the university's race-conscious affirmative action program was declared unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.
Together, Gratz and Grutter affirmed and refined the Supreme Court's position on affirmative action a quarter century after its initial decision in Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978). The Court made clear that affirmative action programs are only constitutional if they consider race as one factor in an individualized evaluation, and only to achieve the goal of "class diversity." With two new justices joining the Supreme Court in 2006, however, the approach may soon become less permissive.
Hamdan v. Rumsfeld
In Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006), the Supreme Court ruled that the Bush administration's use of military commissions to try terrorist suspects violated the U.S. Code of Military Justice and Geneva Conventions, and were not specifically authorized by any act of Congress. The case began with the capture of Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemenese citizen who had been the personal driver of Osama bin Laden, a wanted terrorist, on a farming project developed by bin Laden. The project, located in Afghanistan, was designed to increase regional support for bin Laden and his radical views. After the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, American forces invaded Afghanistan to route out bin Laden, his terrorist group Al Qaeda, and allied Taliban forces. During the American invasion, Afghani bounty hunters captured Hamdan and sold him to the U.S. military. In 2002, the U.S. military moved Hamdan to its military detainee camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in 2004 it charged him with conspiracy to commit terrorism and made arrangements to try him before a military commission specially designed for terrorist suspects like him.
Before the commission could begin, Hamdan filed a writ of habeas corpus, or a writ challenging his detention as unlawful, in a federal district court, claiming that his detainment and the scheduled commission were both illegal. Following the Supreme Court decisions Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004) and Rasul v. Bush (2004), which ruled that suspected terrorists classified as "enemy combatants" have the right to challenge their detention in an impartial tribunal, the government set up a Combatant Status Review Tribunal to review "enemy combatant" challenges. This tribunal, after reviewing the facts of Hamdan's capture, ruled that he was properly classified as an "enemy combatant" and could be tried before the special commission. Hamdan then filed another habeas corpus petition to a federal court, again asserting that his scheduled commission trial was unlawful. The lower court granted Hamdan's petition, but the Federal Circuit Court for the District of Columbia reversed the decision. Hamdan appealed to the Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 2006.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision written by Justice John Paul Stevens, ruled that the military commissions set up by the Bush administration to try "enemy combatants" violated the detained suspects' rights as provided in both the Geneva Convention and the U.S. Code of Military Justice. The Court first ruled that the Supreme Court had jurisdiction, or power, to review Hamdan's case, because the relevant congressional law defining the powers to entertain habeas corpus petitions of "enemy combatant," the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, did not expressly preclude review by the Supreme Court. Next, the Court ruled that Congress had not authorized the president to set up special military commissions for terrorist suspects that deviated from the courts-martial or other tribunal systems already provided for under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and other relevant laws.
Third, the Court ruled that the Bush administration's commission violated the Geneva Convention and the rules of the Uniform Code of Military Justice complying with it. The Geneva Conventions, of which the United States is a bound signatory, prohibit "the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples." The Court argued that it was immaterial that the terrorist group Al Qaeda was not a signatory because the Convention still applied to individuals, like Hamdan, who were captured in the context of "international conflicts" within member nations of the Convention, like Afghanistan.
The Court argued that the Bush administration's military commissions had violated the U.S. Military Code of Justice and the Geneva Conventions in specific and dramatic ways. The commissions prohibited a defendant's attorney from discussing evidence with the defendant, prevented a defendant and his attorney from viewing evidence used against the defendant, deprived the defendant of his right to appeal to a U.S. court, and allowed any evidence determined to contain "probative value" to be admitted -- including unsworn testimony, hearsay, and evidence garnered through the use of torture. Thus, the Court ruled that Hamdan's scheduled "military commission ... lacks the power to proceed because its structure and procedures violate both the UCMJ and the four Geneva Conventions signed in 1949." Though narrowly decided, the Supreme Court's ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld reaffirmed the Court's paramount role in and commitment to guarding personal liberties in times of even the gravest national exigencies. In nullifying the Bush administration's special military commissions for trying terrorism suspects, Hamdan left a void in the government's prosecutorial apparatus in the so-called "War on Terror." In the fall of 2006, Congress and the president sought to fill this void by enacting the Military Commission Act. Its constitutionality, however, is unclear. For example, the act strips aliens deemed "enemy combatants" of the right to challenge their detention in a court of law, and removes evidence and procedural safeguards ordinarily employed in judicial trials or in military courts-martial.
Korematsu v. United States
Early in World War II, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, granting the U.S. military the power to ban tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry from areas deemed critical to domestic security. Promptly exercising the power so bestowed, the military then issued an order banning "all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien" from a designated coastal area stretching from Washington State to southern Arizona, and hastily set up internment camps to hold the Japanese Americans for the duration of the war. In defiance of the order, Fred Korematsu, an American-born citizen of Japanese descent, refused to leave his home in San Leandro, California. Duly convicted, he appealed, and in 1944 his case reached the Supreme Court.
A 6-3 majority on the Court upheld Korematsu's conviction. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black held that although "all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect" and subject to tests of "the most rigid scrutiny," not all such restrictions are inherently unconstitutional. "Pressing public necessity," he wrote, "may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions; racial antagonism never can."
In Korematsu's case, the Court accepted the U.S. military's argument that the loyalties of some Japanese Americans resided not with the United States but with their ancestral country, and that because separating "the disloyal from the loyal" was a logistical impossibility, the internment order had to apply to all Japanese Americans within the restricted area. Balancing the country's stake in the war and national security against the "suspect" curtailment of the rights of a particular racial group, the Court decided that the nation's security concerns outweighed the Constitution's promise of equal rights.
Justice Robert Jackson issued a vociferous, yet nuanced, dissent. "Korematsu ... has been convicted of an act not commonly thought a crime," he wrote. "It consists merely of being present in the state whereof he is a citizen, near the place where he was born, and where all his life he has lived." The nation's wartime security concerns, he contended, were not adequate to strip Korematsu and the other internees of their constitutionally protected civil rights.
In the second half of his dissent, however, Jackson admitted that ultimately, in times of war, the military would likely maintain the power to arrest citizens -- and that, possessing no executive power, there was little the judicial branch could do to stop it. Nonetheless, he resisted the Court's compliance in lending the weight of its institutional authority to justify the military's actions, and contended that the majority decision struck a "far more subtle blow to liberty" than did the order itself: "A military order, however unconstitutional, is not apt to last longer than the military emergency. ... But once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all of time has validated the principle of racial discrimination. ... The principle then lies about like a loaded weapon ready for the hand of any authority that can bring forward a plausible claim of urgent need."
Justice Owen Roberts also dissented in the case, arguing that a relocation center "was a euphemism for prison," and that faced with this consequence Korematsu "did nothing." Also dissenting, Justice Frank Murphy harshly criticized both the majority and the military order, writing that the internment of the Japanese was based upon "the disinformation, half-truths and insinuations that for years have been directed against Japanese Americans by people with racial and economic prejudices."
The Court's decision in Korematsu, loudly criticized by many civil libertarians at the time and generally condemned by historians ever since, has never been explicitly overturned. Indeed, it is frequently cited for its assertion that "all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect." However, a report issued by Congress in 1983 declared that the decision had been "overruled in the court of history," and the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 contained a formal apology -- as well as provisions for monetary reparations -- to the Japanese Americans interned during the war. In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Fred Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Significantly, not until the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger (dealing with the affirmative action policy at the University of Michigan Law School) did the Court again approve an instance of racial discrimination against the application of Black's "rigid scrutiny" standard. Jackson's dissent, though, reminds us of the difficult position the Court finds itself in when it assesses claimed violations of constitutional rights in times of war.
Lawrence vs Texas
In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the Supreme Court ruled that state laws banning homosexual sodomy are unconstitutional as a violation of the right to privacy. The case began with the arrest of John Geddes Lawrence, a Houston resident, by the Houston Police, dispatched to Lawrence's apartment complex in response to a reported weapons disturbance. When the police entered Lawrence's apartment unit, they found him engaged in a sexual act with another man, Tyron Garner. Both men were detained, held in police custody overnight, and charged with violating the Texas "Homosexual Conduct" law, which provided that a "person commits an offense if he engages in deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex." After the men were convicted and fined, Lawrence appealed, arguing that that the Homosexual Conduct law was unconstitutional because it discriminated against homosexuals in violation of the right to privacy and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. The Texas appeals court affirmed the conviction, however, pursuant to the Supreme Court's ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), which upheld a Georgia antisodomy law. Lawrence appealed to the Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 2003.
The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, ruled that the Homosexual Conduct law was unconstitutional and overturned the conviction of Lawrence and Garner. The Court ruled that the law violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause because that clause protects a substantive right to personal liberty in intimate decisions. The Court argued that its decision in Bowers, which ruled that the Due Process Clause does not confer a "fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy," was misguided. At issue here was not "the right to engage in homosexual sodomy" but "the right to privacy in the home" and "the right to freely engage in consensual, adult sex." In the words of Justice Kennedy, "When sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring." That personal bond between adults, as acted upon in the home, is a liberty protected by the Due Process Clause against the states.
The Court also rejected Bowers' method of identifying rights that deserve Court protection against the state. The Court argued that "history and traditions," i.e., America's historic laws, "are the starting point but not in all cases the ending point" in identifying the existence of such rights. From Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) to Roe v. Wade (1973), fundamental rights have been construed broadly, so even activities largely banned by America's laws, such as abortions, may be constitutionally protected. And even when America's "history and traditions" are examined, it is clear that American antisodomy laws have rarely been enforced in the home and did not single out same-sex couples until the 1970s, and that more states are repealing their antisodomy laws. In fact, by 2003, only four states enforced sodomy laws against homosexuals. In her concurring opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor argued that because the law prohibited homosexual sodomy and not heterosexual sodomy, it was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The majority did not join her extension of Equal Protection rights to gays.
Lawrence v. Texas was a paramount case in two regards. First and most obviously, the ruling established that consensual and private homosexual sex is part of a substantive right to liberty as protected by the Constitution. Second, and less obviously, Lawrence held that "fundamental rights" (i.e., "substantive due process," or activities implicitly protected by the Constitution) are really broad principles of liberty under which numerous and disparate activities may be protected. This was a stark departure from the Court's conservative methodology in the 1980s and 1990s, which found evidence of fundamental rights only in activities the laws themselves substantially protected ("history and traditions"). In the end, therefore, Lawrence v. Texas both protected the privacy of the bedroom and renewed the Court's power to identify individual rights above and beyond those historically protected under the law.
Lochner v. New York
In Lochner v. New York (1905), the Supreme Court ruled that a New York law setting maximum working hours for bakers was unconstitutional. The Court held that the Constitution prohibits states from interfering with most employment contracts because the right to buy and sell labor is a fundamental freedom protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision, and the resulting "Lochner era" it ushered in, led to the abrogation of many progressive era and Great Depression laws regulating working conditions. In 1937, the Supreme Court overturned Lochner in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish.
In 1897, the state of New York passed the Bakeshop Act -- a so-called "labor law" -- one section of which provided that "no employee shall be ... permitted to work in a biscuit, bread, or cake bakery or confectionery establishment more than sixty hours in any one week." Joseph Lochner, who owned Lochner's Home Bakery in Utica, was fined $50 for allowing an employee to work more than 60 hours in a week. Lochner was sentenced to incarceration in a county jail until he paid the fine or, if he didn't pay, for 50 days. Lochner appealed his conviction up to the New York Court of Appeals (New York State's highest court), which affirmed his sentence. Claiming the labor law was unconstitutional, Lochner appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Rufus Peckham, held that the act was unconstitutional and that the conviction of Lochner must be reversed. The Court construed the law as an absolute interference "with the right of contract between the employer and employees," then declared that "the general right to make a contract in relation to his business is part of the liberty of the individual protected by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution." The Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause prohibits states from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. To the Court, the right to buy and sell labor through contract was a "liberty of the individual" protected under the amendment.
The Court admitted that while, in certain circumstances, the states may legitimately regulate certain contracts through their police powers, the baking industry, unlike the mining industry, was not an "unhealthy trade" and therefore was not legally subject to regulation. The Court held that act was "an unreasonable, unnecessary, and arbitrary interference with the right of the individual to his personal liberty," and irrationally limited freedoms "necessary for the support" of workers and their families. "The freedom of master and employee to contract with each other in relation to their employment ... cannot be prohibited or interfered with, without violating the Federal Constitution." In other words, the right to contract employment terms is generally protected by the Fourteenth Amendment against state interference.
Lochner v. New York, controversial from the time it was decided, rendered the judiciary a consistent adversary to legislatures for more than 30 years. Time and time again, the Supreme Court struck down laws regulating labor conditions, construing them as repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment. In the 1937 case West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, however, the Court reversed itself and began permitting some regulation of the labor market (although it did not, at that point, formally overturn Lochner). Today, the Court holds that states may freely regulate terms of employment without violating the Fourteenth Amendment so long as such regulation is rational and procedurally fair.
Though eventually formally struck down, Lochner's finding that "substantive," not just "procedural," rights are protected under the Fourteenth Amendment is still very much alive today. "Substantive" due process limits the type of activities a state may regulate, whereas "procedural" due process limits the means by which a state may regulate. While the Court now holds that the Fourteenth Amendment does not provide substantive due process in the economic sphere (such as a right to freely contract labor), it now holds that the amendment sometimes provides "substantive" due process in the social sphere (such as the right to freely use contraceptives -- see, e.g., Griswold v. Connecticut ).
Marbury v. Madison
Marbury v. Madison, arguably the most important case in Supreme Court history, was the first U.S. Supreme Court case to apply the principle of "judicial review" -- the power of federal courts to void acts of Congress in conflict with the Constitution. Written in 1803 by Chief Justice John Marshall, the decision played a key role in making the Supreme Court a separate branch of government on par with Congress and the executive.
The facts surrounding Marbury were complicated. In the election of 1800, the newly organized Democratic-Republican party of Thomas Jefferson defeated the Federalist party of John Adams, creating an atmosphere of political panic for the lame duck Federalists. In the final days of his presidency, Adams appointed a large number of justices of peace for the District of Columbia whose commissions were approved by the Senate, signed by the president, and affixed with the official seal of the government. The commissions were not delivered, however, and when President Jefferson assumed office March 5, 1801, he ordered James Madison, his Secretary of State, not to deliver them. William Marbury, one of the appointees, then petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus, or legal order, compelling Madison to show cause why he should not receive his commission.
In resolving the case, Chief Justice Marshall answered three questions. First, did Marbury have a right to the writ for which he petitioned? Second, did the laws of the United States allow the courts to grant Marbury such a writ? Third, if they did, could the Supreme Court issue such a writ? With regard to the first question, Marshall ruled that Marbury had been properly appointed in accordance with procedures established by law, and that he therefore had a right to the writ. Secondly, because Marbury had a legal right to his commission, the law must afford him a remedy. The Chief Justice went on to say that it was the particular responsibility of the courts to protect the rights of individuals -- even against the president of the United States. At the time, Marshall's thinly disguised lecture to President Jefferson about the rule of law was much more controversial than his statement about judicial review (which doctrine was widely accepted).
It was in answering the third question -- whether a writ of mandamus issuing from the Supreme Court was the proper remedy -- that Marshall addressed the question of judicial review. The Chief Justice ruled that the Court could not grant the writ because Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which granted it the right to do so, was unconstitutional insofar as it extended to cases of original jurisdiction. Original jurisdiction -- the power to bring cases directly to the Supreme Court -- was the only jurisdictional matter dealt with by the Constitution itself. According to Article III, it applied only to cases "affecting ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls" and to cases "in which the state shall be party." By extending the Court's original jurisdiction to include cases like Marbury's, Congress had exceeded it authority. And when an act of Congress is in conflict with the Constitution, it is, Marshall said, the obligation of the Court to uphold the Constitution because, by Article VI, it is the "supreme law of the land."
As a result of Marshall's decision Marbury was denied his commission -- which presumably pleased President Jefferson. Jefferson was not pleased with the lecture given him by the Chief Justice, however, nor with Marshall's affirmation of the Court's power to review acts of Congress. For practical strategic reasons, Marshall did not say that the Court was the only interpreter of the Constitution (though he hoped it would be) and he did not say how the Court would enforce its decisions if Congress or the Executive opposed them. But, by his timely assertion of judicial review, the Court began its ascent as an equal branch of government -- an equal in power to the Congress and the president. Throughout its long history, when the Court needed to affirm its legitimacy, it has cited Marshall's opinion in Marbury v. Madison.
Martin v. Hunter's Lessee
In Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816), the Supreme Court asserted its authority under Section 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 to review state court decisions dealing with federal law. In so doing, the Court rejected the notion of dual judicial sovereignty, in which the state courts and the federal courts have separate and independent domains of power, and instead asserted the primacy of federal courts over federal law.
Martin concerned competing claims to land in Virginia owned by Lord Fairfax, a British loyalist during the Revolutionary War. Virginia seized the land from Fairfax during the war and assigned a tract of it to David Hunter. Following the war, the United States entered into a treaty with Great Britain guaranteeing protection of lands owned by British loyalists like Fairfax. Thomas Martin, Fairfax's nephew inheriting the land upon his death, then sued for recovery of the tract in a Virginia state court. The Virginia court ruled Fairfax and Martin were the proper owners. Hunter appealed to the Virginia Court of Appeals (Virginia's highest court), which ruled that Hunter was the proper owner of the tract. Martin appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the decision and held that the tract belonged to Fairfax and Martin pursuant to the treaty.
The Virginia Court of Appeals refused to obey the Supreme Court's ruling, however, and unanimously held that Hunter was the proper owner of the tract and that the U.S. Supreme Court lacked authority to review and overturn its decisions. The Virginia court maintained that Section 25 of the 1789 Judiciary Act, which expressly allowed the Supreme Court to review decisions of state supreme courts, was unconstitutional. The court argued that the U.S. Constitution did not provide for such a review in its text, and that the states, as independent governments within the federal system, had final say over federal laws in cases litigated in state courts.
On second appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Constitution did allow the Supreme Court to review state court decisions concerning federal laws (including treaties and the Constitution). Justice Joseph Story wrote the Court's opinion (Chief Justice John Marshall held an interest in Fairfax's land and recused himself from the case). Story first noted that the U.S. Constitution, Article III, implicitly allows Congress to decide whether the Supreme Court may review state decisions of federal law, and that Congress properly authorized such review in passing the Judiciary Act of 1789. Story went on to explain that the Constitution does not guarantee the states total independence from the federal government, and in fact is full of restrictions on state power. While state judges are bound to the same U.S. Constitution and laws as are federal judges, the final interpretation of such laws is best left to a single, competent entity -- the U.S. Supreme Court -- and the Virginia court, therefore, was required to enter judgment in favor of Fairfax. Story's logic is hard to resist, for if the states had the power to interpret the Constitution, there would ultimately be as many versions of the Constitution as there were states.
Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, stands along side of Marbury v. Madison (1803) in shaping the contours of the federal judiciary and establishing the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter of federal law. Martin authorized the second great expansion of the federal judiciary in the Marshall Court era and established the primacy of the federal judiciary over state courts on questions of federal law. In just 40 years, the continued weakening of state power would prompt states like Virginia to secede from the Union. Yet the resulting Civil War would permanently vanquish the notion Martin had already weakened -- that the states are independent governments within the federal system able to disobey and even withdraw their ties with Washington on a whim.
McCulloch v. Maryland
Supreme Court ruled that Congress had implied powers under the Necessary and Proper Clause of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution to create the Second Bank of the United States and that the state of Maryland lacked the power to tax the Bank. Arguably Chief Justice John Marshall's finest opinion, McCulloch not only gave Congress broad discretionary power to implement the enumerated powers, but also repudiated, in ringing language, the radical states' rights arguments presented by counsel for Maryland.
At issue in the case was the constitutionality of the act of Congress chartering the Second Bank of the United States (BUS) in 1816. Although the Bank was controlled by private stockholders, it was the depository of federal funds. In addition, it had the authority to issue notes that, along with the notes of states' banks, circulated as legal tender. In return for its privileged position, the Bank agreed to loan the federal government money in lieu of taxes. State banks looked on the BUS as a competitor and resented its privileged position. When state banks began to fail in the depression of 1818, they blamed their troubles on the Bank. One such state was Maryland, which imposed a hefty tax on "any bank not chartered within the state." The Bank of the United States was the only bank not chartered within the state. When the Bank's Baltimore branch refused to pay the tax, Maryland sued James McCulloch, cashier of the branch, for collection of the debt. McCulloch responded that the tax was unconstitutional. A state court ruled for Maryland, and the court of appeals affirmed. McCulloch appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1819.
In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Marshall, the Court ruled that the Bank of the United States was constitutional and that the Maryland tax was unconstitutional. Concerning the power of Congress to charter a bank, the Court turned to the Necessary and Proper Clause of Article I, Section 8, which expressly grants Congress the power to pass laws "necessary and proper" for the execution of its "enumerated powers." The enumerated powers of Congress include the power to regulate interstate commerce, collect taxes, and borrow money. Said the Court famously, "let the ends be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the constitution, and all means which are appropriate, which are plainly adopted to that end, which are not prohibited, but consist with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional." In other words, because the creation of the Bank was appropriately related to Congress's legitimate power to tax, borrow, and regulate interstate commerce, the Bank was constitutional under the Necessary and Proper Clause.
Second, the Court ruled that Maryland lacked the power to tax the Bank because, pursuant to the Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the Constitution, the laws of the United States trump conflicting state laws. As Marshall put it, "the government of the Union, though limited in its powers, is supreme within its sphere of action, and its laws, when made in pursuance of the constitution, form the supreme law of the land." Because "the power to tax is the power to destroy," Maryland was unconstitutionally undermining the superior laws and institutions of the United States.
Finally, the Court held that the "sovereignty" (political authority) of the Union lies with the people of the United States, not with the individual states that comprise it. The United States, not a simple alliance of states, is a nation of "constitutional sovereignty" with its authority resting exclusively with "the people" who created and are governed by the Constitution. To the Court, "the government of the Union is a government of the people; it emanates from them; its powers are granted by them; and are to be exercised directly on them, and for their benefit." Maryland's tax, however, violated constitutional sovereignty because it acted as a levy against all the people in the United States by a state accountable to only some of the people.
If Marbury v. Madison (1803) "promised" that the Supreme Court would exercise great authority in shaping the laws of the land, McCulloch v. Maryland fulfilled that promise for the first time. Arguably no other decision has so profoundly defined national power. In one case, the Court expanded Congress' powers to include those implied by the Constitution, established the inferior status of the states in relation to the Union, and set the constitutional sovereignty of the federal government. McCulloch remains today a fundamental and binding bedrock of American constitutional law.
Minersville School District v. Gobitis
The origins of the flag salute controversy at the heart of the 1940 Supreme Court case Minersville School District v. Gobitis can be traced to Nazi Germany. In 1933, on the orders of Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Party banned Jehovah's Witnesses for their refusal to join in raised-palm salutes to Nazi flags in schools and at public events; more than 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses were eventually removed to concentration camps. In 1935, in response to these events, Joseph Rutherford, the American leader of the Jehovah's Witnesses, made a radio address denouncing compulsory flag salute laws in the United States and calling on American Witnesses to refuse to comply with them.
Lillian and William Gobitas were practicing Jehovah's Witnesses in the devoutly Catholic community of Minersville, Pennsylvania. In the fall of 1935, they were in the seventh and fifth grades, respectively, when they decided to heed Rutherford's call and begin refraining from the daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance practiced in their public school classrooms. Upon hearing of the Gobitas children's actions, the superintendent of their school system sought, successfully, to have the Board of Education pass a resolution requiring all students to "salute the flag of our Country as a part of the daily exercises" and stating that a student's refusal to cooperate "shall be regarded as an act of insubordination and shall be dealt with accordingly." Lillian and William Gobitas were subsequently expelled from their school and forced to enroll at a private institution.
The children's father filed suit on their behalf and won several decisions from lower courts. The Minersville School District continued to appeal the decisions, and in 1940 the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. (A clerk spelled the family's name incorrectly on court papers, so the case is officially known as Minersville School District v. Gobitis.) Writing for an 8-1 majority, Justice Felix Frankfurter delivered the opinion of the Court. He began by noting the "grave responsibility" the Court had in "reconcil[ing] the conflicting claims of liberty and authority" at stake in the case. He referenced the country's history as a haven for religious dissenters and affirmed the First Amendment's prohibition -- extended by the Fourteenth Amendment to the states -- of laws abridging the freedom of religious belief.
However, Frankfurter contended, the right is not an absolute, and because "national unity is the basis of national security," states retain the constitutional authority to "select appropriate means" to foster such unity -- sometimes even at the cost of individual liberty. Quoting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Frankfurter declared, "'We live by symbols.' The flag is the symbol of our national unity." He held that states could reasonably conclude that allowing students to recuse themselves from the flag salute would negatively affect the patriotism of their classmates, and urged "judicial restraint" in the area of education policy -- contending that because it was a reasonable exercise of Pennsylvania's police powers to allow school districts to expel dissenting students, the ultimate "wisdom" of the Minersville resolution lay outside of the judicial branch's proper sphere of consideration.
In an eloquent defense of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion, and against Frankfurter's personal entreaties that he not hold "too tight a rein" on government officials as they geared up for war, Justice Harlan Fiske Stone issued the Court's sole dissent. Rejecting the idea that "the country will be better served by conformity than by the observance of religious liberty which the Constitution prescribes," Stone denied that constitutionally protected civil liberties could be circumstantially abridged and argued that Minersville's compulsory flag salute amounted to persecution: "History teaches us that there have been but few infringements of personal liberty by the state which have not been justified, as they are here, in the name of righteousness and the public good, and few which have not been directed, as they are now, at politically helpless minorities."
The Court's decision, released against the political backdrop of the nation's movement toward war, engendered hundreds of attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses across the country. Unruly mobs burned down their meeting places, expelled their religious leaders, and in at least one case forced Jehovah's Witness children to drink castor oil and parade through town. Newspapers across the country carried reports on the hazings and created a backlash against the Court. Just three years later, in 1943, the Court accepted another flag salute case -- West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. This time, three justices who had signed the majority opinion in Gobitis changed their votes, joining Stone and two new justices as the Court reversed its prior decision, holding that whether a student's objections were religiously based or not, the First Amendment guaranteed the right to nonparticipation in flag salutes. Writing for the majority, Justice Robert Jackson echoed Stone's earlier dissent: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."
Miranda v. Arizona
In Miranda v. Arizona (1966), the Supreme Court ruled that detained criminal suspects, prior to police questioning, must be informed of their constitutional right to an attorney and against self-incrimination. The case began with the 1963 arrest of Phoenix resident Ernesto Miranda, who was charged with rape, kidnapping, and robbery. Miranda was not informed of his rights prior to the police interrogation. During the two-hour interrogation, Miranda allegedly confessed to committing the crimes, which the police apparently recorded. Miranda, who had not finished ninth grade and had a history of mental instability, had no counsel present. At trial, the prosecution's case consisted solely of his confession. Miranda was convicted of both rape and kidnapping and sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison. He appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, claiming that the police had unconstitutionally obtained his confession. The court disagreed, however, and upheld the conviction. Miranda appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1966.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, ruled that the prosecution could not introduce Miranda's confession as evidence in a criminal trial because the police had failed to first inform Miranda of his right to an attorney and against self-incrimination. The police duty to give these warnings is compelled by the Constitution's Fifth Amendment, which gives a criminal suspect the right to refuse "to be a witness against himself," and Sixth Amendment, which guarantees criminal defendants the right to an attorney.
The Court maintained that the defendant's right against self-incrimination has long been part of Anglo-American law as a means to equalize the vulnerability inherent in being detained. Such a position, unchecked, can often lead to government abuse. For example, the Court cited the continued high incidence of police violence designed to compel confessions from a suspect. This and other forms of intimidation, maintained the Court, deprive criminal suspects of their basic liberties and can lead to false confessions. The defendant's right to an attorney is an equally fundamental right, because the presence of an attorney in interrogations, according to Chief Justice Warren, enables "the defendant under otherwise compelling circumstances to tell his story without fear, effectively, and in a way that eliminates the evils in the interrogations process."
Without these two fundamental rights, both of which, the Court ruled, "dispel the compulsion inherent in custodial surroundings," "no statement obtained from the defendant can truly be the product of his free choice."
Thus, to protect these rights in the face of widespread ignorance of the law, the Court devised statements that the police are required to tell a defendant who is being detained and interrogated. These mandatory "Miranda Rights" begin with "the right to remain silent," and continue with the statement that "anything said can and will be used against [the defendant] in a court of law." The police are further compelled to inform the suspect of his or her right to an attorney and allow for (or, if necessary, provide for) a defendant's attorney who can accompany him during interrogations. Because none of these rights was afforded to Ernesto Miranda and his "confession" was thus unconstitutionally admitted at trial, his conviction was reversed. Miranda was later retried and convicted without the admission of his confession.
Miranda v. Arizona, in creating the "Miranda Rights" we take for granted today, reconciled the increasing police powers of the state with the basic rights of individuals. Miranda remains good law today.
Plessy v. Ferguson (Dissent)
The June 7, 1892 arrest of Homer Plessy was part of a strategy orchestrated by a small civic group of black professionals seeking to overturn the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act. Plessy, who was by blood only one-eighth African and who easily "passed" as white, boarded a whites-only compartment on the East Louisiana Railway and, as planned, was arrested shortly thereafter by a private detective. Railroad officials viewed the law -- which mandated that they provide separate accommodations for blacks and whites -- as an expensive and inconvenient burden and cooperated with the citizens' group in arranging to have Plessy safely arrested before leaving the city limits of New Orleans.
The civic group planned to utilize Plessy's light skin color in demonstrating the arbitrariness -- and unconstitutionality -- of the segregation law once his case was prosecuted. Specifically, Plessy's attorney argued that Louisiana's segregation law violated both the Thirteenth Amendment (barring slavery) and the Fourteenth Amendment (guaranteeing all people "equal protection" under the law). Through several appeals, however, the Louisiana courts upheld both Plessy's conviction and the constitutionality of the segregation law, and in 1896 the case reached the Supreme Court.
Writing for a 7-1 majority, Justice Henry Brown accepted Plessy's contention that the "object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law." However, Brown drew a distinction between political equality and social equality: "Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based on physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the differences of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane." Finally, Brown rejected Plessy's claim that assignment to the blacks-only car conferred "a badge of inferiority," stating that this was true only if "the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."
Justice John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner and staunchly pro-slavery antebellum politician, issued the Court's sole dissent. In a scathing opinion, Harlan refuted Brown's assertion that the Louisiana law discriminated equally against both blacks and whites. "Everyone knows," he wrote, "that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons."
Harlan sharply disagreed with the majority's assessment that segregation on the railcars did not violate blacks' constitutionally protected right to equal protection of the law. However, although he argued eloquently for a "color-blind" reading of the Constitution, Harlan, like Brown, did not advocate social equality among the races. Rather, his point of departure from the majority opinion was his belief that legally imposed segregation denied political equality. In a key passage of his dissent, Harlan stated: "The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage, and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law."
Although nowhere in the opinion can the phrase "separate but equal" be found, the Court's ruling in Plessy effectively established the rule that "separate" facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were "equal" -- a principle that Southern states quickly extended to many other forms of public accommodation, such as public schools, restaurants, theaters, restrooms, and even drinking fountains. Widely regarded today as one of the Court's worst and most damaging opinions, Plessy stood as legal precedent until the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, which began the process of ending more than 50 years of legally sanctioned segregation. Although it did not explicitly adopt Harlan's "colorblind" standard in Brown, a unanimous Court rejected the logic of the Plessy majority. Writing for the Court in Brown, Chief Justice Earl Warren stated: "We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
Plessy v. Ferguson
In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of a Louisiana law passed in 1890 "providing for separate railway carriages for the white and colored races." The law, which required that all passenger railways provide separate cars for blacks and whites, stipulated that the cars be equal in facilities, banned whites from sitting in black cars and blacks in white cars (with exception to "nurses attending children of the other race"), and penalized passengers or railway employees for violating its terms.
Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in the case, was seven-eighths white and one-eighth black, and had the appearance of a white man. On June 7, 1892, he purchased a first-class ticket for a trip between New Orleans and Covington, La., and took possession of a vacant seat in a white-only car. Duly arrested and imprisoned, Plessy was brought to trial in a New Orleans court and convicted of violating the 1890 law. He then filed a petition against the judge in that trial, Hon. John H. Ferguson, at the Louisiana Supreme Court, arguing that the segregation law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids states from denying "to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws," as well as the Thirteenth Amendment, which banned slavery.
The Court ruled that, while the object of the Fourteenth Amendment was to create "absolute equality of the two races before the law," such equality extended only so far as political and civil rights (e.g., voting and serving on juries), not "social rights" (e.g., sitting in a railway car one chooses). As Justice Henry Brown's opinion put it, "if one race be inferior to the other socially, the constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane." Furthermore, the Court held that the Thirteenth Amendment applied only to the imposition of slavery itself.
The Court expressly rejected Plessy's arguments that the law stigmatized blacks "with a badge of inferiority," pointing out that both blacks and whites were given equal facilities under the law and were equally punished for violating the law. "We consider the underlying fallacy of [Plessy's] argument" contended the Court, "to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it."
Justice John Marshall Harlan entered a powerful -- and lone -- dissent, noting that "in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens."
Until the mid-twentieth century, Plessy v. Ferguson gave a "constitutional nod" to racial segregation in public places, foreclosing legal challenges against increasingly-segregated institutions throughout the South. The railcars in Plessy notwithstanding, the black facilities in these institutions were decidedly inferior to white ones, creating a kind of racial caste society. However, in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the "separate but equal" doctrine was abruptly overturned when a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that segregating children by race in public schools was "inherently unequal" and violated the Fourteenth Amendment. Brown provided a major catalyst for the civil rights movement (1955-68), which won social, not just political and civil, racial equality before the law. After four decades, Justice Harlan's dissent became the law of the land. Following Brown, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled racial segregation in public settings to be unconstitutional.
Regents of University of California v. Bakke
In Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978), the Supreme Court ruled that a university's use of racial "quotas" in its admissions process was unconstitutional, but a school's use of "affirmative action" to accept more minority applicants was constitutional in some circumstances. The case involved the admissions practices of the Medical School of the University of California at Davis. The medical school reserved 16 out of 100 seats in its entering class for minorities, including "Blacks," "Chicanos," "Asians," and "American Indians." The rigid admissions quota was administered by a special school committee. Allan Bakke, a white applicant, was twice denied admission to the medical school even though his MCAT scores, GPA, and benchmark scores were "significantly higher" than those of some minority applicants recently admitted.
Bakke sued the University of California in a state court, alleging that the medical school's admission policy violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The California Supreme Court agreed, finding that the quota system explicitly discriminated against racial groups and holding that "no applicant may be rejected because of his race, in favor of another who is less qualified, as measured by standards applied without regard to race." The medical school, ordered to shut down its quota system, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1978.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Lewis Franklin Powell, ruled that a state may constitutionally consider race as a factor in its university admissions to promote educational diversity, but only if considered alongside other factors and on a case-by-case basis. California's use of racial quotas in this case, however, did not meet those requirements and violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause, which forbids a state from denying "to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Court held that the medical school racially discriminated against whites because it excluded them from 16 out of 100 spots solely by virtue of their race. The fact that blacks have historically had been discriminated against more than whites was irrelevant to this case, because racial quota systems, whether applied against whites or blacks, are always "odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality." Indeed, because the school's quota was designed to redress past discrimination against racial minorities, the Court stated, it was intended to prefer "one group for no other reason other than race or ethnic origin." Thus, the Court ruled that the school's quota system "must be rejected ... as racially invalid" under the Equal Protection Clause.
The Court also ruled, however, that the state "has a legitimate and substantial interest in ... eliminating ... the disabling effects of identified discrimination." Yet to prosecute those rights within the Constitution's limits, a state must first make judicial, administrative, or legislative findings that document illegal and specific discrimination against racial groups. An admissions department may then attempt to "redress" these findings of past discrimination by considering an applicant's race as a "plus" factor among many in its admissions decisions. Such a race-conscious consideration, however, may only be one of many factors used in assessing each applicant, and the race of each applicant may never be a preclusive factor in granting admission.
Regents of University of California v. Bakke established a pragmatic means of reconciling well-intentioned quota and affirmative action programs with the Constitution's zealous protection of equality. In sum, racial quotas are always unconstitutional, but affirmative action programs may be constitutional if race is considered as one of many admission factors and used to remedy past findings of discrimination and to promote diversity. In the 30 years since this ruling, public and private universities have crafted affirmative action programs consistent with Bakke's requirements. In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), for example, the Supreme Court reaffirmed Bakke's basic approach and ruled that University of Michigan Law School's policy of giving significant but non-determinative weight to its applicants' race was "neutral" enough, and Michigan's interest in a diverse student body was "compelling" enough, to meet constitutionally standards of equality. In a related but separate decision -- Gratz v. Bollinger -- issued on the same day, however, the Court struck Michigan's undergraduate affirmative action program, which employed a points system to rate applicants and which awarded automatic points to minority applicants.
Reynolds vs Sims
In Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that the legislative districts across states be equal in population. The case began in 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled that it had authority to review cases brought by individuals harmed by legislative apportionment or redistricting (see Baker v. Carr). With this ruling, more than 30 lawsuits were filed against states claiming legislative apportionment schemes to be unconstitutional. One case challenged the apportionment scheme of Alabama. Alabama's legislative districts still reflected population levels from the 1900 census. The plaintiffs argued that since 1900, urban districts had grown precipitously, thus diluting the votes of urban residents. Because votes from some districts thus carried more weight than votes from others, the plaintiffs claimed, Alabama's apportionment scheme violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. A lower federal court agreed, and Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court in 1964.
In a decision written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court ruled that Alabama's apportionment scheme did violate the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. Because "the right to exercise franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights," the Court argued, the right to vote is a "fundamental right" strictly protected by the Constitution. And because the United States is a democracy based on equal representation of the people in government, an apportionment scheme that gives more weight to some votes than others violates the Equal Protection Clause, which forbids a state from denying "to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Because the right to vote is so fundamental to securing protection from the laws, the clause inevitably guarantees "the opportunity for equal participation by all voters in the election of state legislatures."
The Court acknowledged that it is practically impossible for a state to create legislative districts that are precisely even in population. The Court also conceded that states, in drawing their districts, may have some legitimate interests that incidentally create minor population disparities. Nonetheless, geographic concerns alone can never justify creating districts that are unequal in population. Chief Justice Warren wrote that "legislators represent people, not trees or acres" and "legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests." In short, the Court ruled that population must always be the "controlling consideration" in state redistricting. Alabama was thus ordered to reapportion its legislative districts using this calculus, making them "as nearly equal of population as is practicable."
Reynolds v. Sims created much controversy. In response to the decision, U.S. Senator Everett Dirkson of Illinois proposed a constitutional amendment that would expressly permit unequal legislative districts. The senator argued that "the forces of our national life are not brought to bear on public questions solely in proportion to the weight of numbers." To hold otherwise, he claimed, would mean that "six million citizens of the Chicago area would hold sway in the Illinois Legislature without consideration of the problems of their four million fellows who are scattered in 100 other counties." Dirkson's proposed amendment was ultimately defeated.
The Reynolds decision, which Warren considered to be his finest, ultimately prevailed over Senator Dirkson's and others' arguments that the Supreme Court has no business meddling in "political" state apportionment schemes. Respect for state sovereignty must bow to the republic's most basic principles, liberty and equality, and the right to an equal vote is the necessary means to securing both.
Roe vs Wade (Dissent)
On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in one of the most famous -- and controversial -- cases in its history: Roe v. Wade. A 7-2 majority held that the Fourteenth Amendment protects a woman's "right to privacy," and that this right encompasses the right to choose to terminate an unwanted or medically dangerous pregnancy. The decision overturned antiabortion statutes in states throughout the country and jump-started a politically powerful "right to life" movement that continues to oppose the decision and seek its reversal. Justices Byron White and William Rehnquist dissented.
State antiabortion statutes had been common since the late 19th century, but in the wake of the women's rights movement and the so-called "sexual revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s, many women had begun fighting -- through political channels and legal challenges -- for increased access to abortion. Because the struggle for access to safe and legal abortion was increasingly being waged within the nation's legal system, in 1971 the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Roe case even though it could not do so in time for the pregnancy of plaintiff Norma McCorvey to be affected by its outcome. (At the time of the case, McCorvey employed the pseudonym "Jane Roe" so as to keep the details of her pregnancy private.) The case was argued first in December 1971 and again nearly a year later, in October 1972.
Justice Harry Blackmun delivered the opinion of the Court. Citing the precedent of Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 case that had overturned a Connecticut law banning the use of contraceptives among married people, Blackmun held that the "right to privacy" established in the earlier case was "broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." As in Griswold, the Court acknowledged that the Constitution does not explicitly name a right to privacy, but located that right within the meaning of the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as in the "penumbras" of the Bill of Rights.
Although Blackmun declined to define a fetus as a "person" under the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, he did acknowledge that the right to access an abortion was "not unqualified" and had to be balanced against important, and valid, state interests in protecting the life of the fetus. Blackmun considered the prevailing medical opinions of the day regarding the "viability" (or ability to survive outside of the womb) of the fetus at different points in its development and held that as the pregnancy advanced, the state's interest in protecting the fetus grew inversely to that of a woman's right to terminate the pregnancy. For legal purposes, however, the Court declined to specify a point at which life begins. To that question, Blackmun stated only, "When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."
In a vitriolic dissent, Justice Byron White lambasted the Court's decision as arbitrary at best, and "an exercise of raw judicial power." Finding Blackmun's framework contradictory, White wrote: "If the state had an interest in protecting the potential life of the fetus" -- which, he believed, the state did -- "that interest existed, and was equally strong, throughout the pregnancy." White -- and also, separately, William Rehnquist -- criticized the Court for extending constitutional protections to a right not found in the Constitution, and for overturning statutes he felt were no more restrictive than many in place at the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, one of the main amendments used by the majority to locate the right to privacy. "The Court apparently values the convenience of the pregnant mother more than the continued existence and development of the life or potential life that she carries," wrote White. "Regardless of whether I might agree with that marshaling of values, I can in no event join the Court's judgment because I find no constitutional warrant for imposing such an order of priorities on the people and legislatures of the States."
The Court's decision in Roe was one of the most divisive in its history, and had the effect of mobilizing a vocal "right to life" antiabortion movement. Armed in part with White's and Rehnquist's dissents, abortion opponents have lobbied state legislatures to place restrictions on abortion and put political pressure on presidents to appoint judges to the appellate courts and to the Supreme Court who they believed would overturn the ruling. Advocates for a woman's "right to choose" have been equally strong-willed in their defense of the decision. Concerns over the potential for the Court to overturn Roe have played a large role in the political battles over subsequent appointments to the Court -- most notably in the failed nomination of Robert Bork, in 1987.
So far, the Court has declined to overturn Roe, but in subsequent abortion cases it has upheld some restrictions on the procedure. It has held, for example, that Congress may prohibit the use of Medicare funds to pay for abortion and that states are not required to pay for abortions for indigent women. Revisiting Roe in the 1992 case Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the Court devised a new test to determine the constitutionality of a given restriction: as long as the restriction does not place an "undue burden" on a woman's access to abortion, it is permissible. Under this standard, the Court upheld a Pennsylvania law requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortion as well as a mandatory 24-hour waiting period, but struck a provision requiring women to notify their spouses of their intention to have an abortion.
Roe vs Wade
Roe v. Wade (1973) ruled unconstitutional a state law that banned abortions except to save the life of the mother. The Court ruled that the states were forbidden from outlawing or regulating any aspect of abortion performed during the first trimester of pregnancy, could only enact abortion regulations reasonably related to maternal health in the second and third trimesters, and could enact abortion laws protecting the life of the fetus only in the third trimester. Even then, an exception had to be made to protect the life of the mother. Controversial from the moment it was released, Roe v. Wade politically divided the nation more than any other recent case and continues to inspire heated debates, politics, and even violence today ("the culture wars"). Though by no means the Supreme Court's most important decision, Roe v. Wade remains its most recognized.
At the time Roe was decided, most states severely restricted or banned the practice of abortion. However, these restrictions were challenged amid the sexual revolution and feminist movements of the 1960s. In 1970, two recent graduates of the University of Texas Law School, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, brought a lawsuit on behalf of a pregnant woman, Dallas area resident Norma L. McCorvey ("Jane Roe"), claiming a Texas law criminalizing most abortions violated Roe's constitutional rights. The Texas law banned all abortions except those necessary to save the life of the mother. Roe claimed that while her life was not endangered, she could not afford to travel out of state and had a right to terminate her pregnancy in a safe medical environment. The lawsuit was filed against Henry Wade, Dallas Country District Attorney, in a Texas federal court. The Texas court ruled that the law violated the Constitution. Wade appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case throughout 1971 and 1972.
In a 7-2 decision written by Justice Harry Blackmun (who was chosen because of his prior experience as counsel to the Mayo Clinic), the Court ruled that the Texas statute violated Jane Roe's constitutional right to privacy. The Court argued that the Constitution's First, Fourth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments protect an individual's "zone of privacy" against state laws and cited past cases ruling that marriage, contraception, and child rearing are activities covered in this "zone of privacy." The Court then argued that the "zone of privacy" was "broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." This decision involved myriad physical, psychological, and economic stresses a pregnant woman must face.
Because abortions lie within a pregnant woman's "zone of privacy," the abortion decision "and its effectuation" are fundamental rights that are protected by the Constitution from regulation by the states, so laws regulating abortion must be sufficiently "important." Was Texas's law sufficiently important to pass constitutional muster? The Court reviewed the history of abortion laws, from ancient Greece to contemporary America, and therein found three justifications for banning abortions: "a Victorian social concern to discourage illicit sexual conduct"; protecting the health of women; and protecting prenatal life. The Court rejected the first two justifications as irrelevant given modern gender roles and medical technology. As for the third justification, the Court argued that prenatal life was not within the definition of "persons" as used and protected in the U.S. Constitution and that America's criminal and civil laws only sometimes regard fetuses as persons deserving protection. Culturally, while some groups regard fetuses as people deserving full rights, no consensus exists. The Court ruled that Texas was thus taking one "view" of many. Protecting all fetuses under this contentious "view" of prenatal life was not sufficiently important to justify the state's banning of almost all abortions.
However, the Court ruled that narrower state laws regulating abortion might be sufficiently important to be constitutional. For example, because the medical community finds that the human fetus might be "viable" ("capable of meaningful life") outside the mother's womb after six months of growth, a state might constitutionally protect a fetus from abortions in the third trimester of pregnancy, as long as it permitted an exception to save the life of the mother. Additionally, because second- and third-trimester abortions present more health risks to the mother, the state might regulate certain aspects of abortions related to maternal health after three months of pregnancy. In the first trimester, however, a state's interests in regulating abortions can never be found "important" enough. Such abortions are thus exclusively for the patient and her doctor to govern.
Roe v. Wade, controversial when released in January 1973, remains one of the most intensely debated Supreme Court decision today. In no other case has the Court entertained so many disputes around ethics, religion, and biology, and then so definitively ruled on them all. To the political Right, critics accuse the Court in Roe of legalizing the murder of human life with flimsy constitutional justifications. To the Left, critics maintain that Roe was poorly reasoned and caused an unnecessary political backlash against abortion rights. Defenders of the decision, however, argue that Roe v. Wade was a disinterested, pragmatic, and ultimately principled decision defending the most basic rights of personal liberty and privacy.
Schechter v. U.S.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt worked with the Democratic Congress to enact several sweeping economic reform bills, known as the New Deal. In 1935, in A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a central piece of this New Deal legislation. In reviewing the conviction of a poultry company for breaking the Live Poultry Code, the Court held that the code violated the Constitution's separation of powers because it was written by agents of the president with no genuine congressional direction. The Court also held that much of the code exceeded the powers of Congress because the activities it policed were beyond what Congress could constitutionally regulate.
The Live Poultry Code, written and promulgated by the Roosevelt administration in 1934, was a part of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), a law passed by Congress to regulate companies as a means to combat the Great Depression. Section 3 of NIRA gave the president authority to approve such "codes of unfair competition." Roosevelt's poultry code fixed the maximum number of hours a poultry employee could work, imposed a minimum wage for poultry employees, and banned certain methods of "unfair competition."
Schechter Poultry Corporation, the defendant in the case, purchased live poultry from commissioners in New York City and Philadelphia and sold slaughtered poultry to retailers and butchers in Brooklyn. Schechter was charged by the U.S. government with violating the poultry code by selling "unfit chickens," illegally selling chickens on an individual basis, avoiding inspections by local poultry regulators, falsifying records of poultry sold, and selling poultry to nonlicensed purchasers. Schechter was convicted in a federal district court, lost an appeal to the circuit court, and appealed to the Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1935.
The Supreme Court held that the Live Poultry Code was unconstitutional and that the conviction of Schechter must be overturned. First, the Court found that the president lacked the power to write the code, citing the U.S. Constitution, Article I, which states that all legislative power is to be vested in the Congress. Article I is thus violated if Congress grants its exclusive legislative power to the president. The NIRA allowed the president to write new codes, such as the poultry code, so long as they regulated "unfair competition." The Court found the phrase "unfair competition" too ambiguous to constitute an "intelligible principle" necessary to limit the president's actions in enforcing the NIRA. Lacking such a principle, the NIRA effectively allowed the president "unfettered discretion" to create "new laws" without congressional approval.
Second, the Court held that the poultry code violated the Constitution's Commerce Clause. The Constitution limits the activities over which Congress may legislate, reserving all other activities for the states to govern. While the Constitution allows Congress to regulate "interstate commerce" under the clause, the Court found Schechter's activities had nothing to do with interstate commerce. Schechter bought poultry from out of state, but its offending conduct was confined to New York State. The activities of Schechter thus fell outside congressional power because they constituted intrastate (in-state) commerce. Additionally, some provisions of the poultry code were found unconstitutional on their face. The effect of a butcher's hours and wage practices on interstate commerce, for example, was found far too "indirect" to be within the congressional powers to regulate under the Commerce Clause.
Schechter Poultry's sweeping interpretations of legislative power had devastating effects on President Roosevelt's New Deal programs in the 1930s. The centerpiece of the New Deal legislation, the NIRA, was essentially declared unconstitutional. Ultimately, President Roosevelt responded by proposing a "court packing" scheme in 1937, allowing a new Supreme Court justice to be appointed for every current sitting justice over the age of 70. The scheme was designed to help tip the Court's ideological balance to Roosevelt's side. It failed in Congress and never became law. By the late 1930s, however, the Supreme Court began reading Congress's powers under the Commerce Clause more broadly. Indeed, by the 1960s, the Court held that congressional statutes outlawing racial segregation in local businesses were constitutional under the Commerce Clause.
Schenck v. U.S.
In Schenck v. United States (1919), the Supreme Court invented the famous "clear and present danger" test to determine when a state could constitutionally limit an individual's free speech rights under the First Amendment. In reviewing the conviction of a man charged with distributing provocative flyers to draftees of World War I, the Court asserted that, in certain contexts, words can create a "clear and present danger" that Congress may constitutionally prohibit. While the ruling has since been overturned, Schenck is still significant for creating the context-based balancing tests used in reviewing freedom of speech challenges.
The case involved a prominent socialist, Charles Schenck, who attempted to distribute thousands of flyers to American servicemen recently drafted to fight in World War I. Schenck's flyers asserted that the draft amounted to "involuntary servitude" proscribed by the Constitution's Thirteenth Amendment (outlawing slavery) and that the war itself was motivated by capitalist greed, and urged draftees to petition for repeal of the draft. Schenck was charged by the U.S. government with violating the recently enacted Espionage Act. The government alleged that Schenck violated the act by conspiring "to cause insubordination ... in the military and naval forces of the United States." Schenck responded that the Espionage Act violated the First Amendment of the Constitution, which forbids Congress from making any law abridging the freedom of speech. He was found guilty on all charges. The U.S. Supreme Court reviewed Schenck's conviction on appeal.
The Supreme Court, in a pioneering opinion written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, upheld Schenck's conviction and ruled that the Espionage Act did not violate the First Amendment. The Court maintained that Schenck had fully intended to undermine the draft because his flyers were designed to have precisely that effect. The Court then argued that "the character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done." While in peacetime such flyers could be construed as harmless speech, in times of war they could be construed as acts of national insubordination. The Court famously analogized to a man who cries "Fire!" in a crowded theater. In a quiet park or home, such a cry would be protected by the First Amendment, but "the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."
In sum, free speech rights afforded by the First Amendment, while generous, are not limitless, and context determines the limits. "The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent." Against this test, the Court upheld the Espionage Act and affirmed Schenck's conviction, finding that his speech had created a clear and present danger of insubordination in wartime.
The decision, in addition to sending Charles Schenck to jail for six months, resulted in a pragmatic "balancing test" allowing the Supreme Court to assess free speech challenges against the state's interests on a case-by-case basis. (Justice Holmes, the test's creator, however, would attempt to refine the standard less than a year later, when he famously reversed himself and dissented in a similar free speech case, Abrams v. United States.) However, the "clear and present danger" test would only last for 50 years. In 1969, the Court in Brandenburg v. Ohio replaced it with the "imminent lawless action" test, one that protects a broader range of speech. This test states that the government may only limit speech that incites unlawful action sooner than the police can arrive to prevent that action. As of 2006, the "imminent lawless action" test is still used.
Slaughterhouse Cases (Dissent)
Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was one of three "Civil War" amendments enacted following the close of the war. While the other two -- the Thirteenth and the Fifteenth -- abolished slavery and extended the right to vote to all races, respectively, the Fourteenth provided an expanded definition of national citizenship. The amendment extended citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States" and decreed that "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
The amendment, enacted in response to the proliferation of "Black Codes" limiting the rights of blacks throughout the South, appeared to guarantee that states could not restrict the rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens under the Constitution; it also voided the ruling of the Supreme Court in the 1857 case Dred Scott v. Sandford: that blacks, whether slave or free, neither were nor could ever become citizens of the United States. Ironically, however, the first case dealing with the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment to reach the Supreme Court -- the so-called Slaughterhouse Cases -- had nothing to do with the rights of the newly freed slaves, but rather involved a lawsuit brought by a group of white businessmen.
At stake in the case was the constitutionality of an 1869 Louisiana statute that had incorporated the Crescent City Livestock Landing & Slaughterhouse Company and granted it the exclusive right to deal in and butcher livestock within the city of New Orleans. Although the ostensible purpose of the law was to protect the public health by reducing citywide pollution and health risks created by the slaughter of animals, state legislators had been bribed outright by the men to whom they awarded the right to operate -- and profit handsomely from -- the corporation. The Butchers Benevolent Association, a group of butchers who had been left out of the corporation, filed suit in federal court. The butchers, represented by former Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell (who had resigned from the Court after his state seceded from the Union), claimed that by denying them the "property" right to practice their livelihood without state interference and by creating a monopoly that favored some citizens at the cost of others, Louisiana had violated their rights under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.
The case -- a consolidation of several suits known as the Slaughterhouse Cases -- reached the Supreme Court in 1873. A narrow 5-4 majority rejected the butchers' claims and ruled in favor of the state of Louisiana. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Miller interpreted the five-year-old Fourteenth Amendment narrowly, declining to read the amendment's "privileges and immunities" clause as a prohibition against any state acting to restrict the rights guaranteed to U.S. citizens under the Constitution. Instead, following Justice Roger Taney's reasoning in the Dred Scott decision, he held that "the distinction between citizenship of the United States and citizenship of a state is clearly recognized and established" -- and that because the "privileges and immunities" clause applied only to the rights associated with "national citizenship" and not those of state citizenship, it did not preclude the state of Louisiana from creating the monopoly.
Four justices dissented, all for differing reasons, but each of them joined the dissenting opinion written by Justice Stephen J. Field. He argued for a much broader interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which he saw as eradicating the distinction between state and national citizenship. "A citizen of a state is now only a citizen of the United States residing in that state," he wrote, and therefore his right to the "privileges and immunities" granted by his national citizenship "are not dependent upon his citizenship of any state." Although Field stopped short of listing all the rights that were properly protected from state abridgement by the Fourteenth Amendment, he did single out the right of protection from "grants of excessive privileges" to corporate monopolies.
In his dissent, Field -- a Lincoln appointee who was nonetheless a Democrat and a staunch opponent of Radical Reconstruction -- was not arguing for a stronger federal role in the enforcement of civil rights for blacks, but rather strenuously opposing the ability of states to maintain broad economic regulatory powers, which he feared would allow them to abridge individual property rights. Although the Court's decision in the Slaughterhouse Cases has never been explicitly overturned, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries an ideologically conservative Court would adopt Field's judicial views, interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment as a protection not of civil rights but of economic liberties.
The Slaughterhouse Cases, resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1873, ruled that a citizen's "privileges and immunities," as protected by the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment against the states, were limited to those spelled out in the Constitution and did not include many rights given by the individual states. Thus, a state may grant business monopolies to some of its citizens but not to others without running afoul of the Constitution. Slaughterhouse was the Court's first interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, arguably the most important addition to the Constitution after the Bill of Rights.
The case began in 1869, when the Louisiana legislature passed a law creating and granting a monopoly to the Crescent City Livestock Landing & Slaughterhouse Company to slaughter animals in the New Orleans vicinity. In exchange for exclusive operating rights in New Orleans, the Crescent City Company was to comply with various state provisions governing, among other things, quality of facilities and products, output volume, and price of livestock. The company was also required to allow independent butchers to work on its grounds at a set rate. Louisiana claimed the measure promoted health and safety by centralizing and improving slaughterhouse production. Critics speculated the measure was designed to facilitate political patronage. In any case, the law banned all other slaughterhouses from operating in New Orleans.
A group of local butchers sued Louisiana in a state court, arguing that the law violated the "privileges and immunities" clause of the newly enacted Fourteenth Amendment. The butchers claimed that the state unconstitutionally deprived them of the "privilege" of operating slaughterhouse companies and thus prevented them from earning a living. After the state courts ruled that the law was constitutional, the butchers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided the case in 1873.
The Supreme Court's decision, written by Justice Samuel Taylor Miller, ruled that the law did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court argued that the "privileges and immunities" clause ("No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States") only forbids the states from withholding the privileges and immunities belonging to American citizenship, not state citizenship.
Furthermore, the privileges and immunities of American citizenship, the Court argued, extended only to those specified in the U.S. Constitution, which bans any state from discriminating against out-of-state citizens residing within its boundaries. The Constitution does not, however, require a state to grant special privileges, like a right to start a slaughterhouse, to every one of its own citizens.
The Court also argued that the Louisiana law did not deprive the butchers of their equal protection and due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. First, the Court maintained that the Thirteenth Amendment (outlawing slavery), Fourteenth Amendment (protecting citizenship rights and liberties), and Fifteenth Amendment (enfranchising ex-slaves) were passed with the narrow intent to grant full equality to "the slave race." Thus, to the Court, the Fourteenth Amendment only banned the states from depriving blacks of equal rights as a racial group; it did not guarantee that all citizens, regardless of their race, should receive equal economic privileges by the state. Second, the Court argued that the butchers bringing suit were not deprived of their property without due process of law because they could still earn a legal living in the area by slaughtering on the Crescent City Company grounds. The Court thus ruled that the Louisiana law was constitutional and allowed the New Orleans butcher plan to go forward.
The Slaughterhouse Cases proved to be more important as a historical snapshot than as a lasting court decision. The strong dissenting opinion by Justice Stephen J. Field, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental rights and liberties of all citizens against state interference, was later adopted by the Supreme Court's majority. Although West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937) ended the reign of Field's influence in this area, the Fourteenth Amendment was interpreted, over the course of the 20th century, to incorporate most of the rights protected in the first eight amendments against deprivation by the states.
Stenberg v. Carhart
In Stenberg v. Carhart (2000), the Supreme Court ruled that a ban on so-called "partial birth" abortions is unconstitutional. The case involved a challenge to a Nebraska law that made all "partial birth" abortions illegal, except when performed to save the life of the mother. The statute defined "partial birth" abortions as procedures in which the physician "partially delivers vaginally a living unborn child before killing the child," or "intentionally delivering into the vagina a partially unborn child, or a substantial portion thereof," for the purpose of killing the "child" and in fact killing that "child." Though the term "partial birth" abortion is unrecognized by the medical community, the Nebraska law's description most closely paralleled the definition of "dilation and extraction" (or "D&X") and "intact dilation and evacuation" (or "intact D&E"), procedures employed by doctors to perform second-trimester abortions. The intact D&E procedure involves a doctor first "collapsing" the skull of the fetus because it is too large to be extracted from the womb and then evacuating the entire fetus from the mother. The D&X method operates identically except that the fetus is evacuated feet first. Evidence suggested that after sixteen weeks of pregnancy, both procedures are the safest methods of abortion available to the mother.
Leroy Carhart, who specialized in late-term abortions, filed a lawsuit against Nebraska's attorney general, Don Stenberg, in a local federal court, claiming that the law was unconstitutional. Dr. Carhart sought declaratory judgment (or a binding order issued by the court) that would allow him to continue performing D&X and D&E without threat of having his medical license revoked by the state. Carhart claimed that he had 10 to 20 cases each year that required D&X alone. The federal court, siding with Carhart, ruled that Nebraska's ban violated a woman's right to an abortion as defined in Roe v. Wade and qualified in Casey v. Planned Parenthood and must be struck down. Attorney General Stenberg appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the ruling. Finally, he appealed to the Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 2000.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Stephen Breyer, affirmed the lower court's decisions and ruled that Nebraska's ban on "partial birth" abortions was unconstitutional. The Court argued that the statute directly violated the Court's decision in Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992) on two grounds. First, the ban on "partial birth" abortions, meaning D&X and possibly all D&E procedures, lacked an exception to preserve "the health of the mother." Casey ruled that the state may ban "post-viability" abortions, or abortions performed after the point at which the fetus can live outside the womb (with aid of medical technology or otherwise), but must provide an exception "for the life and health of the mother." Moreover, Nebraska's law banned abortion practices prior to fetal viability, when the Court forbids states from banning abortions and permits fewer state regulations. The health exception requirement for postviability abortions, "at minimum requires the same in respect to pre-viability abortions" (emphasis added). The Court concluded that because D&E and D&X have been proven safer than other types of second-trimester abortions in preserving the woman's health, any law that bans these procedures without providing a health exception is clearly unconstitutional.
Second, the Court argued that because the term "partial birth" abortion may apply to all, and not just "intact," D&E procedures, Nebraska's law has the unconstitutional effect of outlawing most pre-viability second-trimester abortions, for which D&E procedures, intact or not, are the most common and usually safest method. The Court asserted that this imposed an "undue burden" upon -- a "substantial obstacle" to -- a woman seeking a pre-viability abortion, which was outlawed in Casey.
On both these grounds, therefore, Nebraska's "partial birth" abortion ban, and by extension other state laws banning "partial birth" abortions, was struck down. Yet the Court's decision in Stenberg v. Carhart was met with intense and frequent criticism. Justice Clarence Thomas argued in dissent that "partial birth" abortions was meant only to apply to D&X procedures in which the evacuated displayed at least some features of "viability." In 2003, likely as a direct response to the Court's decision in Stenberg, Congress passed the so-called "Partial Birth Abortion Act," which closely mirrors Nebraska's law but includes explicit factual findings, gathered in congressional hearings, that suggest D&X and intact D&E are not necessarily more effective in preserving the health of the mother. In November 2006, the Court heard oral arguments in the cases Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood -- both of which test the federal law, which has been struck in multiple federal courts of appeal. Decisions on the cases are expected by the late spring or early summer of 2007. With two new justices joining the Supreme Court in 2006, the ultimate disposition of Stenberg, along with that of Roe and Casey, remains unclear.
Swift and Co. v. U.S.
In Swift & Co. v. United States (1905), the Supreme Court ruled that Congress could constitutionally prohibit local business practices as a means to regulate interstate commerce because those practices, when combined together, were within "the stream of commerce" between the states. The case began when the U.S. government sought to enforce the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 against various local meat dealers. The Sherman Act, a federal law passed by Congress in the late 19th century, bars trade monopolies in the United States. A response to the rise of colossal corporations in the Gilded Age, the act was designed to limit the wealth concentrations of big business, encourage American entrepreneurship, and protect small businessmen and consumers. It provided that "every contract, combination in the form of a trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States ... is hereby declared to be illegal."
The government filed a case against Swift & Co. and various other meat dealers around the country, claiming that together they had violated the Sherman Act. The dealers were in the business of buying butchered livestock in one state and selling fresh meat to retailers or agents in different states. Together, the dealers comprised 60 percent of the meat dealer business in the United States. They were charged with conspiring to restrain trade by fixing the prices at which they would buy and sell meat and fixing uniform shipping charges. A trial court found the dealers guilty and issued an "injunction" (or legal order to stop) that barred further price fixing among them. The dealers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that the government lacked power under the Constitution to regulate their business activities. The Supreme Court reviewed the case in 1905.
The Court, in a decision written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ruled that the Sherman Act was constitutional and an injunction could be enforced against the dealers. The dealers claimed that their business activities fell outside of what Congress could legally regulate. The Sherman Act itself is only legal, they claimed, because the Constitution's Commerce Clause allows Congress to regulate "interstate commerce." Yet since Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), the Court had interpreted "interstate commerce" to mean only the buying, selling, and transport of goods between states. The defendants argued their business activities were, by contrast, local in nature and thus beyond the powers of Congress to regulate.
The Court disagreed. Stated Justice Holmes, "When cattle are sent for sale from a place in one State with the expectation that they will end their transit, after purchase in another, and when in effect they do so ... and when this is a typical, constantly recurring course, the current thus existing is a current of commerce among the States, and the purchase of the cattle is part and incident of such commerce." In other words, the defendants' activities, though local in isolation, were an integral part of the "stream of interstate commerce" when viewed together. Thus, the federal government was within its Commerce Clause powers to shut down the defendants' local activities under the Sherman Act. The injunction against Swift and the other defendants was affirmed.
Swift & Co. v. United States liberalized the Court's previous, narrower interpretation of the Commerce Clause in United States v. E. C. Knight (1895). In Knight, the Court held that commercial activities inherently local in nature, such as manufacturing in a factory, fell outside of "interstate commerce" and could not be regulated by Congress even if such activities compromised interstate trade. The Swift decision ruled that local activities can be considered within "interstate commerce" if together they lie within the "stream of interstate commerce." The holdings of both Knight and Swift were replaced, however, in N.L.R.B. v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. (1937), which ruled that a local commercial activity considered in isolation may still constitute "interstate commerce" if that activity has a "close and substantial relationship" to interstate commerce.
U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright
In United States v. Curtiss-Wright (1936), the Supreme Court ruled that the president has broad power to conduct foreign affairs. The case began in 1934, when a Joint Resolution of Congress authorized President Roosevelt to prohibit the sales of arms to Paraguay and Bolivia, both of which were engaged in armed conflict. Upon the resolution's passage, President Roosevelt proclaimed an embargo against the countries. Curtiss-Wright Export Company, the defendant in this case, was soon charged with conspiracy to sell machine guns to Bolivia in violation of the embargo. In its defense, the company asserted that the joint resolution was an unconstitutional delegation of congressional power to the president and thus violated the Constitution's separation of powers. The trial court agreed with the company and dismissed the case. The government appealed to the Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1936.
The Court, in an opinion written by Justice George Sutherland, ruled that the joint resolution was constitutional and that the charges against Curtiss-Wright would stand. The Court held that the Constitution's text constrains only the domestic activities of the federal government, but does not constrain the activities of the government abroad. The Court argued further that, like any other country, the United States has "external sovereignty" by which it may liberally assert or defend itself on the world stage as a free and independent nation. As Sutherland put it, "as a member of the family of nations, the right and power of the United States [in foreign affairs] are equal to the right and power of the other members of the international family. Otherwise, the United States is not completely sovereign." The federal government thus has unlimited power to conduct foreign affairs on the nation's behalf.
The Court also ruled that this unlimited power lies exclusively with the president. Quoting former Chief Justice John Marshall (in his role as a member of the House of Representatives, before his appointment to the Court), the Court maintained that "The President is the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations." The president's exclusive power to negotiate treaties and conduct warfare proves that the Constitution's drafters intended the document to give the executive significant powers to conduct foreign affairs. In sum, even though the Constitution is silent as to the president's power to impose embargos, such a power is implied within the executive's constitutional authority to manage foreign affairs. The government's charges against the Curtiss-Wright company would stand.
United States v. Curtiss-Wright expanded the president's already wide latitude in conducting foreign affairs. At its most basic level, the case ruled that the president's foreign powers are open-ended and inherent in his position as the executive authority of a sovereign nation. The Court's ruling in Curtiss-Wright, which is still good law, coincided with the rapid growth of executive power during the Roosevelt administration, an expansion that helped defeat both the Great Depression and the Axis Powers of World War II. Since the 1930s, the president has become more powerful still, particularly with respect to foreign affairs. Yet many assert that the Founders intended Congress, with its extensive but limited Article I powers, to be the dominant branch of government. Indeed, while threats to our nation's integrity may necessitate granting the executive unlimited authority to conduct foreign policy, this authority always risks overwhelming the government's limited domestic powers and Americans' liberties.
U.S. v. E. C. Knight
In United States v. E. C. Knight (1895), the Supreme Court interpreted the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which was designed to limit the dangerous growth of corporate monopoly in the last quarter of the 19th century. The act provided that "every person who shall monopolize, or attempt to monopolize, or combine or conspire with any other person or persons, to monopolize any part of the trade or commerce among the several States ... shall be deemed guilty of a felony."
The case involved the American Sugar Refining Company. Not long after the Sherman Act was passed, American Sugar bought out four other sugar refineries, increasing its control over national sugar production to 98 percent. In response, the U.S. government sought to invalidate American Sugar's purchase in a lower federal court on the grounds that it violated the Sherman Act. The lower court dismissed the case, and the government appealed to the Supreme Court.
In an 8-1 decision written by Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller, the Court ruled that the government lacked power under the Constitution to enforce the Sherman Act against the company's manufacturing operations. Congress's powers are limited to those enumerated in the Constitution, the Court argued, and only one of those powers, that given by the Constitution's Commerce Clause, allows Congress to "regulate commerce ... among the several States." Manufacturing operations are not "interstate commerce," the Court asserted, because such operations occur entirely in one state. In short, Congress has the power to regulate trade but not manufacturing.
In formulating its ruling, the Court attempted to reconcile Congress's powers under the Commerce Clause with the economic realities of the industrial age. By the late 19th century, as the American economy became more national in scope, and the Court felt obligated to "draw a line" between commercial activities that are "mercantile" in nature, which Congress could regulate, and those "industrial" in nature, which the Court ruled Congress could not regulate. The Commerce Clause only permitted federal regulation of the buying, selling, and transportation of goods between states. If the government were also permitted to regulate the production of goods, as it attempted to do in this case, "comparatively little of business operations would be left for state control."
Like Lochner v. New York (1905), United States v. E. C. Knight proved to be a serious obstacle to the New Deal reforms during the Great Depression. Also like Lochner, Knight was effectively overturned by the late 1930s. In N.L.R.B. v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. (1937), the Supreme Court ruled that an in-state commercial activity like manufacturing may be deemed a part of interstate commerce if the activity has a "close and substantial relationship" to interstate commerce. The Jones & Laughlin decision opened the door for expansive federal regulation of the economy. Judging by U.S. v. Lopez (1995), however, the Court's permissive approach to congressional authority under the commerce clause may be coming to an end.
U.S. v. Lopez
In United States v. Lopez (1995), the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had exceeded its constitutional authority under the Commerce Clause when it passed a law prohibiting gun possession in local school zones. The case arose out of the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which made it a federal offense "for any individual knowingly to possess a firearm at a place that the individual knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, is a school zone." Alfonso Lopez Jr., a high school senior, was convicted in a federal district court for knowingly possessing a concealed handgun and bullets at his San Antonio high school. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, ruling that the law was beyond the reach of Congress's power under the Commerce Clause. The government appealed to the Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1994.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and released in 1995, ruled that the Gun-Free School Zones Act was unconstitutional and overturned Lopez's conviction. The Court ruled that the act exceeded the limited powers of Congress under the Constitution, rejecting the government's argument that the act was constitutional because the buying and selling of guns and associated illicit activities affect "interstate commerce," which Congress may regulate under the Commerce Clause. The government claimed that gun violence in schools leads to both more dangerous and thus less commercially healthy neighborhoods and less economically productive kids. The Court responded that regulating guns in local schools is not sufficiently related to Congress's Commerce Clause power to pass constitutional muster.
The Court maintained that Congress could constitutionally regulate three things under the Commerce Clause: instrumentalities of commerce, the use or channels of commerce, and activities that substantially affect interstate commerce. This act could only be seriously justified under the third category, but even there it ultimately fails because the regulation of guns in school does not "substantially affect interstate commerce." First, the act contains no provisions stating that the unlawful possession must somehow be related to interstate commerce. Second, Congress presented no hard evidence showing such a substantial relation, but only "theories" positing "tenuous" links between violence in schools and injuries to the national economy. Accordingly, Congress had overstepped its limited Commerce Clause powers and instead usurped the state's typical role in policing these crimes.
Since 1937 and until United States v. Lopez, the Supreme Court had consistently upheld, and greatly expanded, Congress's powers under the Commerce Clause. Before the New Deal, the Supreme Court interpreted the clause literally and narrowly, ruling in United States v. E. C. Knight (1895) and Schechter Poultry v. United States (1935), for example, that the Commerce Clause only permits federal regulation of the buying, selling, and transportation of goods between states, not over the manufacture of goods within states, even if that manufacture was closely related to interstate commerce. Yet in the late 1930s the Supreme Court greatly changed course, ruling that federal laws regulating the local production of goods "substantially affected" interstate commerce and was therefore constitutional. By the 1960s and 1970s, in fact, the Court ruled that laws banning segregation in roadside motels and restaurants and outlawing local practices of loan sharking "substantially affected" interstate commerce and were constitutional.
Lopez thus marked the first time in more than 50 years that the Court limited Congress's ever-growing commerce power. Although not returning the Court to its pre-1937 posture on the scope of the commerce power, the Rehnquist Court's decision in Lopez and the cases that followed it may be the harbinger of a developing constitutional revolution in federalism.
U.S. Steel Workers of America v. Weber (Dissent)
Decided in 1979, United Steelworkers of America v. Weber was the first case dealing with affirmative action policies in employment to reach the Supreme Court. In 1974, in order to address decades of racial discrimination in its hiring practices and a serious under-representation of blacks among the ranks of its skilled workers, Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp. had instituted a new policy regarding the training and placement of skilled laborers. Initiated as part of its labor agreement with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), the policy established an on-the-job training program through which unskilled workers could obtain promotions. Admission to the program was based on seniority, but at least half of the available slots were to be held for blacks.
After being passed over for the program in favor of several black employees with less seniority than he, Brian Weber, a white Kaiser employee, brought suit, alleging that the company's affirmative action policy violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII, which forbids employment discrimination based on race, states in part, "It shall be an unlawful employment practice for any employer ... to discriminate against any individual because of his race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in admission to, or employment in, any program established to provide apprenticeship or other training."
A 5-2 majority on the Court upheld Kaiser's affirmative action training policy. Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan emphasized that the labor agreement creating the policy had been a private and voluntary one, expressly adopted to address the company's past discriminatory practices. Although Title VII did not require private companies to adopt affirmative action policies, it also did not forbid them to do so. "Title VII's prohibition against racial discrimination," Brennan wrote, "does not condemn all private, voluntary, race-conscious affirmative action plans." Although the decision did not define the line between acceptable and discriminatory affirmative action policies, Brennan did note that because Kaiser's program did not block white advancement and was not intended to maintain a permanent racial balance, it was not discriminatory within the meaning and purpose of Article VII.
Justice William Rehnquist, joined by Chief Justice Warren Burger, issued a sharply worded dissent. A literal reading of the plain meaning of Title VII, he argued, clearly prohibited the affirmative action program. "Taken in its normal meaning, and as understood by all Members of Congress who spoke to the issue during the legislative debates," he wrote, "... [Title VII] prohibits a covered employer from considering race when making an employment decision, whether the race be black or white." Rehnquist compared the majority's interpretation of the law to the insidious language and power games played by the government in George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, and further stated, "Thus, by a tour de force reminiscent ... of escape artists such as Houdini, the Court eludes clear statutory language ... and uniform precedent in concluding that employers are, after all, permitted to consider race in making employment decisions."
Rehnquist conceded that Congress's motivation in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been, in part, to end the history of employment discrimination against blacks. However, he contended, if Congress wished to make exceptions to the rule that employers could not consider race in any employment decisions, such exceptions should and would have been stated clearly within the statute. Finding no such language, and confirming his reading of the act with a lengthy review of the congressional record leading up to its passage, Rehnquist concluded: "There is perhaps no device more destructive to the notion of equality than the numerus clausus -- the quota. Whether described as 'benign discrimination' or 'affirmative action,' the racial quota is nonetheless a creator of castes, a two-edged sword that must demean one in order to prefer another. In passing Title VII, Congress outlawed all racial discrimination, recognizing that no discrimination based on race is benign, that no action disadvantaging a person because of his color is affirmative."
Although the Court has never adopted Rehnquist's position in Weber, it did move very close to it in City of Richmond v. Corson (1989) and Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena (1995). Today, the issue of affirmative action remains contentious, and one that the Court is likely to deal with again in coming years. In two 2003 cases dealing with admissions policies at the University of Michigan, the Court voided the university's undergraduate affirmative action plan (Gratz v. Bollinger), which used a point system partly based on race, but narrowly upheld a more individualized policy used by Michigan's law school (Grutter v. Bollinger). Writing for the 5-4 majority in the latter case, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted that the Court would consider changing social conditions in deciding future affirmative action cases, stating, "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [racial diversity on campus] approved today."
West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish
In West Coast Hotel v. Parrish (1937), the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that Washington State could impose minimum wage regulations on private employers without violating the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment. The case sounded the death knell of the so-called "Lochner era," during which the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment protects substantive economic rights against the state, such as the right to freely negotiate contracts and wages. West Coast Hotel ruled that no such right exists and that a state may constitutionally restrict the terms of private contracts when protecting the welfare of its citizens.
In 1932, Washington State passed a law entitled "Minimum Wages for Women." It called for minimum wages for women and children as a means to combat "pernicious effects on their health and morals" and provided for a special commission, with input from industry and the public, to determine appropriate minimum wage levels. Elsie Parrish, a chambermaid at the West Coast Hotel, later sued the hotel in a state court claiming that it had not paid her the law's minimum wages. Parrish sought the balance of her income between what she was actually paid and the minimum wage (set at $14.50 per week of 48 hours). West Coast Hotel defended by arguing that the law was unconstitutional. The state court agreed and ruled for the hotel. Parrish appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's ruling and directed that damages be paid to Parrish. West Coast Hotel appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1936 and issued its opinion in 1937.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, ruled that the minimum wage law did not violate the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment and Parrish was entitled to damages. The Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause provides that no state "shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." West Coast Hotel alleged that because the minimum wage law prevented employers and employees from freely negotiating wages, it restrained "liberty" of contract without due process of the law. In response, the Court flatly declared that the "Constitution does not speak of freedom of contract" and that such a freedom is thus "a qualified, and not an absolute, right" under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court argued that while the Fourteenth Amendment bans arbitrary deprivation of life, liberty, and property by the state (or protects "procedural" due process, e.g., a right to a fair trial), it does not prohibit the states' ability to "reasonably" regulate the terms of certain activities for the public good (does not protect "substantive" due process, e.g., the basic right to freely contract).
The Court next ruled that the minimum wage law did not violate "procedural" due process because it was a "reasonable," not arbitrary, regulation. Though it interfered with contractual freedoms between "adults," the Court held that it was now reasonable -- given changing social and economic conditions -- for governments to set a floor under which wage levels could not drop. Ultimately, the Court held that the minimum wage law was constitutional because it reasonably regulated contracts to protect the health and welfare of workers.
West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, sensibly as it reads today, was a radical and controversial departure in 1937. The decision directly overturned the landmark decision Adkins v. Children's Hospital (1923), which ruled that laws fixing terms of employment contracts violated the Due Process Clause because the clause protects a substantive right to freely contract labor ("substantive" due process). Although the Court's sudden rejection of "substantive" due process has sometimes been attributed to political pressures, because the decision was issued right after President Franklin Roosevelt proposed a "court-packing scheme" that would have added "anti-Lochner" justices to the Court to protect New Deal legislation, the Court actually voted on the case prior to Roosevelt's announcement of his proposal. The exact chronology of events aside, historians debate whether and to what degree the day's political climate affected Justice Josephus Roberts' unexpected switch -- sometimes referred to as "the switch in time that saved nine" -- to the pro-New Deal wing of the Court. West Coast Hotel's position on economic regulations remains settled law today.
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