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Supreme Court Cases

Cases involving federalism:

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

Case Summary:

  • In 1816, the Second Bank of the United States was chartered; soon after, in 1818, however, Maryland decided to pass a law that imposed taxes on the bank

  • James McCulloh, who served as a cashier at the Baltimore branch of the Second Bank, decided not to pay the tax

  • The state court had ruled that the Bank was unconstitutional, to begin with, and that the federal government did not have the authority to charter a bank

Constitutional Issues:

  • Two questions could be explored in this case. Did Congress have the implied power to create a bank? And secondly, could states tax a federal entity/bank?

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • Congress concluded based on the necessary and proper clause that Congress is not limited by its expressed powers

  • It was decided that through Congress’ implied powers, they had the ability to create a bank

  • Congress also concluded based on the supremacy clause that because the national laws were superior to state laws, the states were not allowed to tax the federal government

Note: implied powers expand upon the enumerated powers that are listed in the Constitution. Congress is allowed to borrow money, coin money, and tax expressly by the Constitution. The implied power of creating a national bank allows for the federal government to implement this expressed power

United States v. Lopez (1995)

Case Summary:

  • Alfonzo Lopez was a Texas high school senior who took a concealed weapon inside his school

  • Federal charges were soon imposed because of his violation of the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990

    • the act stated that individuals could not possess firearms within school zones based on the premise of the commerce clause

Constitutional Issue:

  • This case explored a constitutional issue involving the commerce clause, and whether the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 exceeded the power allowed by the clause

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • In the ruling, the law was considered unconstitutional since having a gun in the school zone did not substantially affect interstate commerce, which is a clear provision in the commerce clause

  • This case also reaffirmed the Tenth Amendment, which protects states’ rights

Cases involving the First Amendment:

Engel v. Vitale (1962)

Case Summary:

  • The New York Board of Regents had authorized that at the beginning of each day, a short but voluntary prayer would be recited

  • Several organization filed suit against the Board of Regents, claiming that the prayer violated the Constitution

  • The New York Court of Appeals dismissed their arguments

Constitutional Issue:

  • This case was significant and interesting because this prayer was both voluntary and non-denominational. However, the organizations filed suit based on a violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution, which states that a law could not be made ‘respecting an establishment of religion’ 

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The court held that states could not hold prayers in public school even if it was voluntary and even if the prayer did not adhere to a specific religion

  • Because the act of prayer was considered a religious activity, having it occur in a public school would go against the establishment clause of the First Amendment

Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)

Case Summary:

  • Jonas Yoder, as well as other Amish parents, refused to send their children to school after the 8th grade

  • In accordance with their religion, they did not agree with high school attendance

  • They were later charged under a Wisconsin law that required students to attend school until age 16

Constitutional Issue:

This case relates to the other major religious clause of the 1st Amendment: the free exercise clause. By requiring Wisconsin parents to send their children to school, without a faith exception, did it violate the parents' rights to freely exercise their religion?

Holding & Constitutional Principles:

  1. The court held that the requirement to send children to school beyond the eighth grade was unconstitutional

  2. It stated that an individual’s interest in the free exercise of religion was more powerful than a federal interest in sending children to school beyond eighth grade

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)

Case Summary:

  • A group of students decided to wear black armbands in order to protest the Vietnam War

  • Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt decided that they would wear their armbands to school despite warnings from school administration

  • After wearing the armbands to school, they were sent home

  • The students decided to sue their school district for violating the freedom of expression

Constitutional Issue:

  • The main question that was addressed here was whether the prohibition against wearing these armbands (and in general - symbolic protest) violated the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The Supreme Court held that students still have free speech rights at school, and in order to justify the suppression of speech, the speech must substantially interfere with school operations

  • As referenced earlier, this case relates directly to the First Amendment, and the ruling confirmed that students’ right of symbolic speech was more powerful than the potential disorder that it could cause

New York Times Co v. United States (1971)

Case Summary:

  • This case, also known as the Pentagon Papers case had to do with the First Amendment

  • The Nixon Administration tried to prevent the New York Times from publishing material that belonged to a Defense Department study about US intervention in Vietnam

  • President Nixon states that it was necessary to national security to prohibit it before publication, also known as prior restraint

Constitutional Issue:

  • The Constitutional issue that revolved around this case was whether the Nixon administrations’ prior restraint was constitutional and if preventing the publication of ‘classified material’ was a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of the press

Holding & Constitutional Principles:

  • Holding and Constitutional Principle: The Supreme Court, in this case, bolstered the freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment. In a 6-3 vote, the Court established that there was a “heavy presumption against prior restraint” even for national security purposes. This is a key case to know for freedom of the press!

Schenck v. United States (1919)

Case Summary:

  • During World War I, a pair of socialists, including Charles Schenck distributed leaflets that stated the draft violated the 13th Amendment (which prohibits involuntary servitude)

  • The leaflet wanted people to disobey the draft

  • Schenck was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917

  • They appealed on the grounds of the First Amendment

Constitutional Issue:

This was a First Amendment case and the question was whether the Espionage Act violated the First Amendment and if it was an appropriate way that Congress exercised its wartime authority

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The Supreme Court held that the Espionage Act did not violate the First Amendment and it was an appropriate exercise of Congress’ wartime authority

  • This was a key limitation on the First Amendment as the free speech clause does not allow for advocacy of unlawful behavior

Cases involving selective incorporation:

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

Case Summary:

  • Clarence Earl Gideon was charged in Florida state court on a felony - breaking and entering charge

  • During his trial, Gideon requested that he receive a court-appointed lawyer, however, in accordance with Florida State law, an indigent defendant could only have an attorney be appointed in capital crimes/cases

  • Gideon then filed a habeas corpus suit, stating that the court’s decision violated his rights to be represented

Constitutional Issue:

The constitutional issue in this case involved the Sixth Amendment and whether the right to counsel guaranteed in this amendment also applied to felony defendants in state court

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The holding was that the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel applies to state court defendants via the Fourteenth Amendment

  • The Court stated that because the right of counsel is fundamental, it should be incorporated into the states

McDonald v. Chicago (2010)

Case Summary:

  • Chicago passed a handgun ban law, and several suits were filed against the city challenging the ban after another case (District of Columbia v. Heller), in which the Court had held that a DC handgun ban violated the Second Amendment

  • There, since the law was enacted by the federal government, the Second Amendment was applicable

Constitutional Issue:

In this case, the applicability of the Second Amendment to the states was argued, and if the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms (interpreted as an individual right) also applied to the states. This involves selective incorporation!

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • In its decision, the Court stated that the handgun ban was unconstitutional in a 5-4 decision

  • Because the right to self-defense was fundamental, the Second Amendment was incorporated to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause

Cases involving the equal protection clause:

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Case Summary:

  • Relating to the racial segregation of schools, African American students had been denied admittance to public schools because of these segregation laws, and many argued that this was in violation of the Constitution

Constitutional Issue:

This was an issue in terms of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A previous case (Plessy v. Ferguson), held that segregated facilities were legal as long as the facilities were equal (called ‘separate but equal doctrine’). In this case, racial segregation in public school education was argued against based on the equal protection clause

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The Court held that ‘separate but equal is inherently unequal’, and therefore racial segregation of public schools is unconstitutional

  • The segregated schools allowed by the previous case were declared unconstitutional, which had a major impact on the US and required desegregation of all public schools

    • Judicial review → the Supreme Court is allowed to reverse previous rulings based on the premise of judicial review (think; Marbury v. Madison)

    • Stare decisis → the case established that this principle, which states that current courts should look to previous decisions for interpretation, will not always be upheld

    • Enforced? → the Court required states to desegregate ‘with all deliberate speed’, and when schools had not desegregated after 10 years, the Court issues another opinion requiring immediate desegregation, an example of how judicial decisions may not be enforced by the federal or state executive departments

Cases involving federal policy:

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)

Case Summary:

  • The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 had previously banned corporations from independent political spending and direct contributions to campaigns or political parties

  • In 2008, Citizens United was not allowed to show an anti-Hillary Clinton movie

Constitutional Issue:

The issue here was whether the BCRA applied to nonprofits, or if the First Amendment’s free speech clause protected such political speech

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The holding in this case was the corporations should be considered people and therefore their funding of ‘independent political expenditures cannot be limited’

  • This is considered a form of political speech, which is protected by the free speech portion of the First Amendment

Note: this led to the development of Super PACS and a significant increase in the amount of money contributed to political campaigns

Cases involving districting & representation:

Baker v. Carr (1962)

Case Summary:

  • Charles Baker stated that an old law from 1901 that detailed the apportionment for Tennessee’s General Assembly had been ignored, and stated that reapportionment did not take into account the significant change that the state had gone through

Constitutional Issue:

The issue here was unique, and was regarding whether the Supreme Court as a unit had the authority to hear cases that related to legislative apportionment

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The chief justice and the Court concluded that because of the Fourteenth Amendment issues, through equal protection, that the case seemed to address, the Supreme Court did have the authority to hear this case

Note: this case opened the door to more challenges to unfair redistricting by way of the equal protection clause. Eventually, it also led to the development of the one person, one vote doctrine

Shaw v. Reno (1993)

Case Summary:

  • Several North Carolina residents challenged a proposed, unusually shaped district

  • They believed that the only purpose of the district was that it would definitely elect African-American representatives

Constitutional Issue:

The constitutional issue here was whether racial gerrymandering took place with this district, and if the district raised an equal protection clause question

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The Supreme Court held, in a majority opinion authored by Sandra Day O’Connor, that because the district was shaped in such a clearly odd way, it was enough to prove that there was a very apparent effort to separate voters racially

Note: a key fact about this case is that majority-minority districts can be constitutionally challenged if race was the sole factor in their creation

Cases involving judicial review:

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Case Summary:

  • The 1800 election ended in a defeat for John Adams to Thomas Jefferson

  • Before Adams’ term ended, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, creating new courts, adding new judges

  • It was an effort by John Adams to keep his own influence in federal courts even though he was leaving office, something which still occurs today

  • His appointments to these courts, however, were not valid until the appointed judges were delivered their commissions by Jefferson’s Secretary of State

    • Marbury was one of the judges appointed'; however, his commission was not delivered

Constitutional Issue:

A key issue was whether the Court had the authority to order the delivery of commission, and if a federal judge could even bring the case to court

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The Court held that although legally, the commission should have been delivered, the clause of the Judiciary Act of 1789 which enabled Marbury to bring the cause to court was unconstitutional

  • By declaring a law made by Congress unconstitutional, the practice of judicial review was established

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Supreme Court Cases

Cases involving federalism:

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

Case Summary:

  • In 1816, the Second Bank of the United States was chartered; soon after, in 1818, however, Maryland decided to pass a law that imposed taxes on the bank

  • James McCulloh, who served as a cashier at the Baltimore branch of the Second Bank, decided not to pay the tax

  • The state court had ruled that the Bank was unconstitutional, to begin with, and that the federal government did not have the authority to charter a bank

Constitutional Issues:

  • Two questions could be explored in this case. Did Congress have the implied power to create a bank? And secondly, could states tax a federal entity/bank?

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • Congress concluded based on the necessary and proper clause that Congress is not limited by its expressed powers

  • It was decided that through Congress’ implied powers, they had the ability to create a bank

  • Congress also concluded based on the supremacy clause that because the national laws were superior to state laws, the states were not allowed to tax the federal government

Note: implied powers expand upon the enumerated powers that are listed in the Constitution. Congress is allowed to borrow money, coin money, and tax expressly by the Constitution. The implied power of creating a national bank allows for the federal government to implement this expressed power

United States v. Lopez (1995)

Case Summary:

  • Alfonzo Lopez was a Texas high school senior who took a concealed weapon inside his school

  • Federal charges were soon imposed because of his violation of the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990

    • the act stated that individuals could not possess firearms within school zones based on the premise of the commerce clause

Constitutional Issue:

  • This case explored a constitutional issue involving the commerce clause, and whether the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 exceeded the power allowed by the clause

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • In the ruling, the law was considered unconstitutional since having a gun in the school zone did not substantially affect interstate commerce, which is a clear provision in the commerce clause

  • This case also reaffirmed the Tenth Amendment, which protects states’ rights

Cases involving the First Amendment:

Engel v. Vitale (1962)

Case Summary:

  • The New York Board of Regents had authorized that at the beginning of each day, a short but voluntary prayer would be recited

  • Several organization filed suit against the Board of Regents, claiming that the prayer violated the Constitution

  • The New York Court of Appeals dismissed their arguments

Constitutional Issue:

  • This case was significant and interesting because this prayer was both voluntary and non-denominational. However, the organizations filed suit based on a violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution, which states that a law could not be made ‘respecting an establishment of religion’ 

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The court held that states could not hold prayers in public school even if it was voluntary and even if the prayer did not adhere to a specific religion

  • Because the act of prayer was considered a religious activity, having it occur in a public school would go against the establishment clause of the First Amendment

Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)

Case Summary:

  • Jonas Yoder, as well as other Amish parents, refused to send their children to school after the 8th grade

  • In accordance with their religion, they did not agree with high school attendance

  • They were later charged under a Wisconsin law that required students to attend school until age 16

Constitutional Issue:

This case relates to the other major religious clause of the 1st Amendment: the free exercise clause. By requiring Wisconsin parents to send their children to school, without a faith exception, did it violate the parents' rights to freely exercise their religion?

Holding & Constitutional Principles:

  1. The court held that the requirement to send children to school beyond the eighth grade was unconstitutional

  2. It stated that an individual’s interest in the free exercise of religion was more powerful than a federal interest in sending children to school beyond eighth grade

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)

Case Summary:

  • A group of students decided to wear black armbands in order to protest the Vietnam War

  • Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt decided that they would wear their armbands to school despite warnings from school administration

  • After wearing the armbands to school, they were sent home

  • The students decided to sue their school district for violating the freedom of expression

Constitutional Issue:

  • The main question that was addressed here was whether the prohibition against wearing these armbands (and in general - symbolic protest) violated the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The Supreme Court held that students still have free speech rights at school, and in order to justify the suppression of speech, the speech must substantially interfere with school operations

  • As referenced earlier, this case relates directly to the First Amendment, and the ruling confirmed that students’ right of symbolic speech was more powerful than the potential disorder that it could cause

New York Times Co v. United States (1971)

Case Summary:

  • This case, also known as the Pentagon Papers case had to do with the First Amendment

  • The Nixon Administration tried to prevent the New York Times from publishing material that belonged to a Defense Department study about US intervention in Vietnam

  • President Nixon states that it was necessary to national security to prohibit it before publication, also known as prior restraint

Constitutional Issue:

  • The Constitutional issue that revolved around this case was whether the Nixon administrations’ prior restraint was constitutional and if preventing the publication of ‘classified material’ was a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of the press

Holding & Constitutional Principles:

  • Holding and Constitutional Principle: The Supreme Court, in this case, bolstered the freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment. In a 6-3 vote, the Court established that there was a “heavy presumption against prior restraint” even for national security purposes. This is a key case to know for freedom of the press!

Schenck v. United States (1919)

Case Summary:

  • During World War I, a pair of socialists, including Charles Schenck distributed leaflets that stated the draft violated the 13th Amendment (which prohibits involuntary servitude)

  • The leaflet wanted people to disobey the draft

  • Schenck was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917

  • They appealed on the grounds of the First Amendment

Constitutional Issue:

This was a First Amendment case and the question was whether the Espionage Act violated the First Amendment and if it was an appropriate way that Congress exercised its wartime authority

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The Supreme Court held that the Espionage Act did not violate the First Amendment and it was an appropriate exercise of Congress’ wartime authority

  • This was a key limitation on the First Amendment as the free speech clause does not allow for advocacy of unlawful behavior

Cases involving selective incorporation:

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

Case Summary:

  • Clarence Earl Gideon was charged in Florida state court on a felony - breaking and entering charge

  • During his trial, Gideon requested that he receive a court-appointed lawyer, however, in accordance with Florida State law, an indigent defendant could only have an attorney be appointed in capital crimes/cases

  • Gideon then filed a habeas corpus suit, stating that the court’s decision violated his rights to be represented

Constitutional Issue:

The constitutional issue in this case involved the Sixth Amendment and whether the right to counsel guaranteed in this amendment also applied to felony defendants in state court

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The holding was that the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel applies to state court defendants via the Fourteenth Amendment

  • The Court stated that because the right of counsel is fundamental, it should be incorporated into the states

McDonald v. Chicago (2010)

Case Summary:

  • Chicago passed a handgun ban law, and several suits were filed against the city challenging the ban after another case (District of Columbia v. Heller), in which the Court had held that a DC handgun ban violated the Second Amendment

  • There, since the law was enacted by the federal government, the Second Amendment was applicable

Constitutional Issue:

In this case, the applicability of the Second Amendment to the states was argued, and if the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms (interpreted as an individual right) also applied to the states. This involves selective incorporation!

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • In its decision, the Court stated that the handgun ban was unconstitutional in a 5-4 decision

  • Because the right to self-defense was fundamental, the Second Amendment was incorporated to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause

Cases involving the equal protection clause:

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Case Summary:

  • Relating to the racial segregation of schools, African American students had been denied admittance to public schools because of these segregation laws, and many argued that this was in violation of the Constitution

Constitutional Issue:

This was an issue in terms of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A previous case (Plessy v. Ferguson), held that segregated facilities were legal as long as the facilities were equal (called ‘separate but equal doctrine’). In this case, racial segregation in public school education was argued against based on the equal protection clause

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The Court held that ‘separate but equal is inherently unequal’, and therefore racial segregation of public schools is unconstitutional

  • The segregated schools allowed by the previous case were declared unconstitutional, which had a major impact on the US and required desegregation of all public schools

    • Judicial review → the Supreme Court is allowed to reverse previous rulings based on the premise of judicial review (think; Marbury v. Madison)

    • Stare decisis → the case established that this principle, which states that current courts should look to previous decisions for interpretation, will not always be upheld

    • Enforced? → the Court required states to desegregate ‘with all deliberate speed’, and when schools had not desegregated after 10 years, the Court issues another opinion requiring immediate desegregation, an example of how judicial decisions may not be enforced by the federal or state executive departments

Cases involving federal policy:

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)

Case Summary:

  • The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 had previously banned corporations from independent political spending and direct contributions to campaigns or political parties

  • In 2008, Citizens United was not allowed to show an anti-Hillary Clinton movie

Constitutional Issue:

The issue here was whether the BCRA applied to nonprofits, or if the First Amendment’s free speech clause protected such political speech

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The holding in this case was the corporations should be considered people and therefore their funding of ‘independent political expenditures cannot be limited’

  • This is considered a form of political speech, which is protected by the free speech portion of the First Amendment

Note: this led to the development of Super PACS and a significant increase in the amount of money contributed to political campaigns

Cases involving districting & representation:

Baker v. Carr (1962)

Case Summary:

  • Charles Baker stated that an old law from 1901 that detailed the apportionment for Tennessee’s General Assembly had been ignored, and stated that reapportionment did not take into account the significant change that the state had gone through

Constitutional Issue:

The issue here was unique, and was regarding whether the Supreme Court as a unit had the authority to hear cases that related to legislative apportionment

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The chief justice and the Court concluded that because of the Fourteenth Amendment issues, through equal protection, that the case seemed to address, the Supreme Court did have the authority to hear this case

Note: this case opened the door to more challenges to unfair redistricting by way of the equal protection clause. Eventually, it also led to the development of the one person, one vote doctrine

Shaw v. Reno (1993)

Case Summary:

  • Several North Carolina residents challenged a proposed, unusually shaped district

  • They believed that the only purpose of the district was that it would definitely elect African-American representatives

Constitutional Issue:

The constitutional issue here was whether racial gerrymandering took place with this district, and if the district raised an equal protection clause question

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The Supreme Court held, in a majority opinion authored by Sandra Day O’Connor, that because the district was shaped in such a clearly odd way, it was enough to prove that there was a very apparent effort to separate voters racially

Note: a key fact about this case is that majority-minority districts can be constitutionally challenged if race was the sole factor in their creation

Cases involving judicial review:

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Case Summary:

  • The 1800 election ended in a defeat for John Adams to Thomas Jefferson

  • Before Adams’ term ended, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801, creating new courts, adding new judges

  • It was an effort by John Adams to keep his own influence in federal courts even though he was leaving office, something which still occurs today

  • His appointments to these courts, however, were not valid until the appointed judges were delivered their commissions by Jefferson’s Secretary of State

    • Marbury was one of the judges appointed'; however, his commission was not delivered

Constitutional Issue:

A key issue was whether the Court had the authority to order the delivery of commission, and if a federal judge could even bring the case to court

Holdings & Constitutional Principles:

  • The Court held that although legally, the commission should have been delivered, the clause of the Judiciary Act of 1789 which enabled Marbury to bring the cause to court was unconstitutional

  • By declaring a law made by Congress unconstitutional, the practice of judicial review was established