Published March 13, 2024

15 Supreme Court Cases You HAVE To Know For the AP Government Exam

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Sophie

High School Sophomore from West Virginia, Avid Classics Enthusiast, Marketing Intern and Blog Writer at Knowt :)

Preparing for your AP Government exam can be a daunting task, but with the right AP resources and study strategies, you can conquer it with confidence. Whether you're diving into AP test prep a few months in advance or looking for AP study guides to streamline your review sessions, understanding landmark Supreme Court cases is crucial. But don't worry, we're here to help! In this AP guide, we'll navigate through 15 Supreme Court cases crucial for your AP exam study guides. Each case discussed in this article has been carefully selected to enhance your understanding of U.S. history and government, making them indispensable for your AP test review.

FREE AP Government Resources! 

To support your last-minute AP test prep, we've compiled essential AP resources and AP study notes. These tools are designed to help streamline your studying process, offering clear, concise, and relevant information that aligns with your AP test study guides.

  • The ULTIMATE AP Government Study Guide: A comprehensive review tool covering key topics and cases, perfect for anyone looking for effective AP study guides.

  • AP Government Flashcards: Handy for memorizing key facts, dates, and legal principles, these flashcards are an essential part of any AP resources kit.

  • Our Favorite YouTube channel for all things AP Gov - Heimler’s: complements online AP notes and AP study guides.

As you delve into each Supreme Court case, from Marbury v. Madison to Citizens United v. FEC, consider utilizing AP flashcards to remember crucial dates and outcomes. Engage with online AP notes to reinforce your understanding and participate in AP test review sessions to discuss these cases' implications. By incorporating these strategies into your AP test study guides, you'll be better prepared to tackle the AP government exam with confidence.

Remember, the key to AP test prep success is utilizing a variety of AP resources, including AP study guides, AP flashcards, and AP exam study guides. By doing so, you'll ensure a well-rounded review and a deeper understanding of the material. Good luck on your AP Government exam!

1. Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Marbury v. Madison (1803) is a foundational Supreme Court case establishing the concept of judicial review, which allows the Supreme Court to invalidate laws and government actions that conflict with the Constitution. For your AP Government exam, it's essential to know the year of the decision, the key figures involved (William Marbury, James Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall), and the principle of judicial review itself. Understand the background of the case, where Marbury was denied his commission as a justice of the peace and sought a remedy directly from the Supreme Court.

To effectively study this case, create a detailed timeline from the appointment of Marbury to the Supreme Court's decision. Make sure to understand the legal terms and the specific questions the court was answering. Focus on Chief Justice Marshall’s reasoning and how he established the court's role in interpreting the Constitution. Practice explaining the significance of the case in your own words to ensure you grasp its impact on the American legal system and the balance of power in the federal government. Engaging in discussions, using flashcards for key facts, and reviewing how this case has been applied in other contexts can deepen your understanding and help solidify this crucial piece of U.S. legal history for your exam.

2. McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) is a pivotal Supreme Court case that reinforced the powers of the federal government. It revolved around whether the state of Maryland had the authority to tax the Second Bank of the United States, leading to broader questions about the power of federal institutions and states' rights. For your AP Government exam, key points to remember include the year of the case, the main conflict (state versus federal power), and the outcome: the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, ruled that Congress had implied powers under the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution, and states could not interfere with federal institutions, epitomized by the phrase "the power to tax involves the power to destroy."

To study for this case, break down the arguments presented by both sides and understand the legal reasoning behind the Court's decision. Make note cards with important terms and concepts, like "implied powers," "Necessary and Proper Clause," and "federal supremacy." Review how this case fits into the larger framework of federalism in U.S government. Discussing the case with classmates or in study groups can help you see different viewpoints and understand the broader implications of the ruling. Finally, look at how this case has been referenced in subsequent Supreme Court decisions to understand its lasting impact on American government and law.

3. Schenck v. U.S (1919)

Schenck v. United States (1919) is an important Supreme Court case for understanding the limits of free speech, particularly during wartime. In this case, Charles Schenck was convicted under the Espionage Act for distributing pamphlets that opposed the draft during World War I. The Supreme Court, led by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, upheld his conviction, introducing the famous "clear and present danger" test to determine when speech could be limited.

For your AP Government exam, focus on the year of the case, the context of World War I, the main parties involved (Charles Schenck and the United States), and the significant outcome concerning the First Amendment. Understand the rationale behind the decision, especially the concept of "clear and present danger" as a standard for limiting speech. This case illustrates the tension between civil liberties and national security, a recurring theme in U.S. government.

To study Schenck v. United States, outline the arguments presented by both sides and the Court's reasoning. Create flashcards with key terms and details, like the Espionage Act, "clear and present danger," and the impact of the ruling on First Amendment rights. Discuss the case with peers to explore different perspectives and its implications in various historical contexts. Review how this decision has been referenced or challenged in subsequent Supreme Court cases to understand its lasting influence. Engaging with the material in multiple formats will help solidify your understanding of this landmark case and its place in American legal and social history.

4. Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Brown v. Board of Education (1954) is a landmark Supreme Court case that declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. This case is crucial for your AP Government exam because it highlights the struggle for civil rights and the role of the judiciary in addressing social injustice. Key facts to remember include the year of the decision, the context of the Civil Rights Movement, the plaintiffs (Oliver Brown and others), and the unanimous decision led by Chief Justice Earl Warren that segregation in public schools creates a sense of inferiority among African-American children.

To study for this case, focus on the background of segregation in the United States, the legal arguments made by both sides, and the social and political implications of the Court's decision. Create a timeline that links Brown v. Board of Education with other civil rights milestones. Use flashcards to remember significant terms, names, and concepts associated with the case, such as "separate but equal," "Jim Crow laws," and "de jure segregation." Discuss the case in study groups to explore its impacts and the legal reasoning behind the Court's decision. Review how this case has influenced subsequent civil rights legislation and court decisions to understand its lasting legacy. Engaging with the material in various ways will help ensure a deeper understanding of this pivotal moment in American history for your exam.

5. Baker v. Carr (1962)

Baker v. Carr (1962) is a landmark Supreme Court case that transformed the landscape of American politics by addressing the issue of electoral districting, often summarized by the phrase "one person, one vote." The case emerged from Tennessee, where Charles W. Baker filed a lawsuit arguing that the state's apportionment (the way voting districts were drawn) ignored significant population shifts, thus diluting the voting power of certain regions, particularly urban areas. The Supreme Court's decision, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, ruled that federal courts could hear cases on state apportionment and that unequal representation violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

For your AP Government exam, important facts to remember about Baker v. Carr include the year of the decision (1962), the key legal question (whether federal courts can rule on state apportionment issues), and the major outcome (affirmation that federal courts can address legislative redistricting issues). This case set the stage for subsequent rulings that would further shape American electoral processes, emphasizing the importance of equal representation.

To study for this, start by understanding the background of the case and the legal arguments presented by both sides. Use diagrams to visualize how apportionment works and how it was being challenged. Make flashcards detailing the key figures, legal principles, and impacts of the ruling. Discuss the case's significance in relation to the civil rights movement and its effect on subsequent electoral reforms. Review how the "one person, one vote" principle has been applied and challenged in later cases. Engaging with the material in a variety of ways will help you grasp the enduring significance of Baker v. Carr in American political and legal history.

6. Engel v. Vitale (1962)

​​Engel v. Vitale (1962) is a critical Supreme Court case that examined the role of religion in public schools, ultimately reshaping the relationship between religion and government in the United States. The case arose when a public school in New York implemented a voluntary, non-denominational prayer at the start of each school day, leading to a lawsuit by a group of parents, including Steven Engel, arguing that this violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion.

For your AP Government exam, it's important to remember the year of the decision (1962), the main issue (prayer in public schools), and the outcome (the Supreme Court ruled that government-directed prayer in public schools, even if non-denominational and voluntary, violates the First Amendment). This case underscores the principle of the separation of church and state, a foundational concept in American government.

To effectively study Engel v. Vitale, outline the background and the arguments from both sides, focusing on how this case illustrates the application of the Establishment Clause. Create flashcards to memorize the key facts, terms, and impacts of the ruling. Review how this decision has influenced subsequent cases involving religion in public life. Discuss the case's implications with classmates to explore different perspectives and understand its significance in the broader context of civil liberties and government powers. Understanding Engel v. Vitale will help you grasp the complex interplay between religion and public policy in U.S. history.

7. Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) is a crucial Supreme Court case for understanding the rights of defendants in the American legal system. The case centers around Clarence Earl Gideon, who was charged with a felony in Florida. Gideon requested a court-appointed attorney, arguing that he could not afford one, but was denied based on state law which only provided attorneys for capital cases. After being convicted, Gideon appealed to the Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial and, as such, applies to state courts through the Fourteenth Amendment.

For your AP Government exam, remember the year of the decision (1963), the key constitutional question (whether the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel applies to state court defendants in felony cases), and the ruling's impact (extending the right to counsel to all criminal defendants in state courts). This case highlights the importance of due process and the rights of individuals within the American justice system.

To study Gideon v. Wainwright, outline the events leading up to Gideon's arrest and subsequent trial, focusing on the constitutional issues at stake. Create flashcards with key terms, such as "Sixth Amendment," "right to counsel," and "Fourteenth Amendment." Discuss the implications of the ruling on the American legal system and its significance in ensuring fair trials for all individuals, regardless of economic status. Review subsequent cases influenced by Gideon's precedent to understand its lasting impact. Engaging with the case from multiple angles will deepen your understanding and help you remember its significance for your exam.

8. Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) is a significant Supreme Court case that established the standard for evaluating the freedom of speech in schools. The case originated when Mary Beth Tinker and her siblings wore black armbands to their public school as a form of protest against the Vietnam War. The school suspended them, leading to a lawsuit that argued the suspension violated their First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Tinkers, stating that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

For your AP Government exam, it's important to remember the year of the case (1969), the main parties involved (the Tinker family and the Des Moines school), and the principle established that students have free speech rights in school settings, as long as their speech does not disrupt the educational process. This case underscores the balance between authority and individual rights and the application of the First Amendment in educational environments.

To study Tinker v. Des Moines, examine the background leading up to the case, including the social and political climate of the 1960s. Create flashcards that define key legal terms and details, such as "symbolic speech" and "material and substantial disruption." Discuss with peers or in study groups to explore different viewpoints and the broader implications of the case on student rights and school policies. Review how this case has been applied in subsequent legal disputes involving student speech to understand its continuing impact. Engaging with the material through various methods will help solidify your understanding of the case's significance in American legal and educational history.

9. New York Times v. U.S (1969)

New York Times v. United States (1971), commonly known as the "Pentagon Papers Case," is a crucial Supreme Court case for understanding the balance between national security and the freedom of the press. The controversy arose when the New York Times started publishing the Pentagon Papers, classified documents detailing U.S. strategy in the Vietnam War. The Nixon Administration argued that publishing these documents posed a security risk and sought to stop their publication. However, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspapers, holding that the government had not met the heavy burden required to justify a prior restraint on speech under the First Amendment.

For your AP Government exam, key facts to remember about this case include the year (1971), the central conflict (freedom of the press versus government secrecy), and the outcome (a reaffirmation of the press's right to publish information significant to public interest without prior restraint). This case is pivotal for its role in shaping the modern understanding of the First Amendment and its protections for the press.

To study New York Times v. United States, start by understanding the context of the Vietnam War and why the Pentagon Papers were significant. Outline the arguments made by both sides in the case and the Supreme Court's reasoning. Make flashcards to remember the key legal terms and principles, such as "prior restraint" and "First Amendment." Discuss the case's implications for journalism and government transparency with classmates to explore different perspectives. Review how this decision has been applied and referenced in later freedom of the press cases to grasp its lasting impact. By approaching the case from multiple angles, you can gain a comprehensive understanding of its significance and be better prepared for your exam.

10. Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)

Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) is a landmark Supreme Court case that addressed the balance between individual religious freedoms and state educational requirements. The case originated when three Amish families in Wisconsin were prosecuted under a state law requiring all children to attend public school until age 16. The families argued that this law conflicted with their religious beliefs and practices, which dictated that children should not attend school past the eighth grade. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Yoder family, stating that their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion outweighed the state's interest in mandating school attendance beyond the eighth grade.

For your AP Government exam, important points to remember include the year of the decision (1972), the central issue (the conflict between religious freedom and state laws on education), and the outcome (recognition of the Amish community's right to limit their children's schooling based on religious beliefs). This case highlights the importance of religious liberties and the limitations of state power in infringing upon these freedoms.

To study Wisconsin v. Yoder, focus on understanding the background of the Amish community and their reasons for opposing extended public schooling. Create flashcards with key legal terms and principles, such as "free exercise of religion," "compelling state interest," and "First Amendment." Analyze the court's reasoning and how it balanced the interests of religious freedom against the state's educational goals. Discuss the case with peers to explore different viewpoints and its broader implications on religious and educational rights. Review how this decision has influenced subsequent cases involving religious freedoms and state regulations. By exploring these various elements, you will develop a comprehensive understanding of Wisconsin v. Yoder and its significance in American legal history.

11. Roe v. Wade (1973)

Roe v. Wade (1973) is a pivotal Supreme Court case that significantly impacted American society and law by addressing the issue of abortion rights. The case was brought by "Jane Roe" (a pseudonym for Norma McCorvey), who challenged Texas laws criminalizing most abortions, arguing that they were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, ruled that the right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman's decision to have an abortion. However, the Court also held that this right must be balanced against the state's interests in regulating abortions: protecting women's health and protecting the potentiality of human life. The decision led to the establishment of the trimester framework, which set different levels of state interest for each stage of pregnancy.

For your AP Government exam, essential facts to remember include the year of the decision (1973), the constitutional basis for the ruling (the right to privacy under the 14th Amendment), and the outcome (the establishment of a woman's right to choose an abortion within the first trimester, with increasing state regulation possible in later stages of pregnancy). This case is crucial for understanding shifts in social policies, individual rights, and the role of the state.

To study Roe v. Wade, outline the legal arguments presented by both sides and the Supreme Court's reasoning. Create flashcards with key terms and concepts, such as "right to privacy," "Due Process Clause," and "trimester framework." Discuss the case's broader implications on American society, politics, and health care with classmates to explore different perspectives. Review how this decision has been challenged, reaffirmed, or modified in subsequent Supreme Court cases to understand its lasting impact, and how it has been overturned by Dobbs v. Jackson.

12. Shaw v. Reno (1993)

Shaw v. Reno (1993) is an essential Supreme Court case for understanding the complexities of racial gerrymandering and the interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in the context of electoral districting. The case arose after the U.S. Department of Justice rejected North Carolina's initial congressional redistricting plan for failing to create a majority-black district. The state submitted a new plan creating two majority-black districts, but one of them was unusually shaped, leading white residents to challenge the plan as racially discriminatory.

For your AP Government exam, remember the year of the case (1993), the main issue (whether racial considerations in redistricting, leading to oddly shaped electoral districts, violate the Equal Protection Clause), and the outcome (the Supreme Court ruled that redistricting based primarily on race must be held to a standard of strict scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause). This case underscored the tension between preventing racial discrimination and avoiding racial segregation in voting practices.

To study Shaw v. Reno, focus on the background and political context of the case, understanding the balance between enhancing minority representation and avoiding racial segregation. Make flashcards detailing key concepts such as "racial gerrymandering," "Equal Protection Clause," and "strict scrutiny." Discuss with classmates the implications of this ruling on redistricting and minority representation in Congress to explore different viewpoints. Review how this decision has influenced subsequent legal standards and cases related to redistricting and race. Engaging with the material through different methods, such as case summaries, scholarly articles, and class discussions, will deepen your understanding of Shaw v. Reno's significance in American legal and political history.

13. U.S. v. Lopez (1995)

U.S. v. Lopez (1995) marks a significant moment in Supreme Court history, primarily because it was the first case in decades where the Court limited the power of the Congress under the Commerce Clause. The case began when Alfonso Lopez, a high school student, was charged under the Federal Gun-Free School Zones Act for carrying a concealed weapon into his Texas high school. Lopez argued that the federal law, which banned guns in school zones, exceeded Congress's authority under the Commerce Clause, which allows Congress to regulate interstate commerce.

For your AP Government exam, important details to remember include the year of the decision (1995), the central legal question (whether the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 exceeded Congress's power under the Commerce Clause), and the outcome (the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Lopez, stating that carrying a gun in a school zone did not significantly affect interstate commerce and therefore was beyond the scope of Congress's power under the Commerce Clause). This case is critical for understanding the limits of federal power and the balance of authority between state and federal governments.

To study U.S. v. Lopez, start by understanding the background of the Commerce Clause and its previous interpretations by the Court. Create flashcards highlighting key legal terms and principles, such as "Commerce Clause," "federalism," and "Gun-Free School Zones Act." Discuss the implications of the ruling on federal regulatory powers and its impact on the balance between state and federal authority with classmates. Review how this decision has been referenced in subsequent cases to understand its lasting impact on federalism and congressional authority. Engaging with a variety of study materials and viewpoints will help you grasp the significance of U.S. v. Lopez and its place in American legal history.

14. McDonald v. Chicago (2010)

McDonald v. Chicago (2010) is a pivotal Supreme Court case that marked a significant moment in the interpretation of the Second Amendment and the application of constitutional rights at the state level. The case arose after Otis McDonald, a resident of Chicago, challenged the city's stringent handgun ban, arguing that it violated his Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for self-defense. This case followed the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) decision, which had recognized an individual's right to own firearms under the Second Amendment but applied only to federal enclaves.

For your AP Government exam, it's crucial to remember the year of the decision (2010), the main legal question (whether the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause, making it applicable to the states), and the outcome (the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment does apply to the states, thereby extending the Heller decision's protections to include state and local governments). This case is vital for understanding the evolving interpretation of the Bill of Rights and the concept of "selective incorporation."

To study McDonald v. Chicago, focus on the legal background provided by the Heller decision and how McDonald sought to expand those rights to the state level. Make flashcards with key terms and concepts, such as "Second Amendment," "selective incorporation," and "Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." Discuss the case's broader implications for gun control laws and individual rights with peers to explore different viewpoints. Review subsequent legal challenges and discussions surrounding gun rights and regulations to understand the decision's ongoing impact. By examining various resources and engaging in thoughtful discussion, you will deepen your understanding of McDonald v. Chicago's significance in American legal and social history/

15. Citizens United v. FEC (2010)

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) is a landmark Supreme Court case that significantly changed campaign finance laws in the United States. The case arose when Citizens United, a nonprofit corporation, was prevented from airing a film critical of Hillary Clinton close to the 2008 Democratic primaries due to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which restricted "electioneering communications" by corporations and unions. Citizens United challenged these restrictions, arguing that they violated the First Amendment's free speech protections.

For your AP Government exam, essential facts to remember about this case include the year of the decision (2010), the main legal question (whether the BCRA's restrictions on corporate and union spending on electioneering communications violate the First Amendment), and the outcome (the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns, asserting that such spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment). This case is crucial for understanding the intersection of free speech, campaign finance, and political influence.

To study Citizens United v. FEC, start by understanding the background of campaign finance laws in the U.S. and how this decision changed them. Create flashcards with key terms and principles, such as "electioneering communications," "Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act," and "corporate speech." Discuss the implications of the ruling on political campaigns, electoral integrity, and public perception of democracy with classmates to explore different perspectives. Review how this decision has influenced subsequent elections and the creation of Super PACs to grasp its lasting impact. Engaging with the material through diverse methods and perspectives will help you better understand the significance of Citizens United v. FEC in American political and legal history.

Final Thoughts

As you gear up for your AP Government exam, remember that these 15 landmark Supreme Court cases are not just names and dates to memorize—they are the vibrant, living history of American democracy in action. Each case represents a pivotal moment in the ongoing journey toward justice, equality, and the balance of power. By studying these cases, you're not only preparing to ace your exam; you're gaining a deeper understanding of the principles that shape our nation and the rights we hold dear. So, take a deep breath, embrace the challenge, and dive into your studies with enthusiasm and curiosity. Remember, your effort now is not just for a grade—it's a step toward becoming an informed and engaged citizen. Good luck on your AP Government exam, and remember, we're rooting for you every step of the way!




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