Landmark Cases that Changed the US
There have been many influential cases which present how much the US has progressed since independence. Here, we list some of these cases.
We have already covered the cases which impacted the UK’s legal system, so we decided to cover the judgments from landmark cases which shaped the law in the US.
At both the federal and state levels, (with the exception of Louisiana), the legal system in the United States is largely derived from the common law system from English law, leaving there to originally be a slight overlap in terms of cases that have influenced the system today. However, American law has diverged greatly from its English ancestor – both in terms of substance and procedure – incorporating a number of civil law innovations.
We all know of Roe v. Wade – which gave women more power when it comes to their bodies and having children – or Miranda v. Arizona – which brought Miranda rights to life -, and Loving v. Virginia – which struck down laws banning inter-racial marriage in 16 states. But there have been many influential cases which present how much the US has progressed since independence. Below, we list some of these cases that have changed the United States.
Marbury v. Madison (1803)
We have to begin our list here as this judgment established the principle of judicial review in the United States. This decision meant that American courts have the power to strike down laws, statutes, and some government actions that violate the Constitution of the United States.
Soon before President Thomas Jefferson took office, President John Adams and his Congress had created new courts and appointed dozens of judges, including William Marbury. But by the time Jefferson’s inauguration occurred, a few of the new judges’ commissions still had not been delivered and the new administration, James Madison, wouldn’t validate the appointment. So Marbury sued.
It was ruled that Madison’s refusal to deliver the commission was illegal but did not order Madison to hand over Marbury’s commission via writ of mandamus, as the law Marbury had sued under was also unconstitutional. Marshall had reasoned that the Judiciary Act of 1789 conflicted with the Constitution, but Congress did not have power at that time to modify the Constitution through regular legislation as the Supremacy Clause places the Constitution before the laws. Thus, the principle of judicial review, i.e., the power to declare a law unconstitutional, was established.
Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819)
In 1816, the New Hampshire legislature attempted to change Dartmouth College– a privately funded institution–into a state university, changing the school’s corporate charter by transferring the control of trustee appointments to the governor. The 5-to-1 decision had concluded that the Contract Clause applies to private as well as public corporations, allowing Dartmouth to continue as a private institution. Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion emphasized that the term “contract” refers to transactions involving individual property rights, not to “the political relations between the government and its citizens”. The decision of this case settled the nature of public versus private charters, resulting in the rise of the American business corporation and the American free enterprise system.
Munn v. Illinois (1877)
This case upheld the power of government to regulate private industries. In 1871, Illinois passed legislation that set the maximum rate private companies could charge for storing and transporting agricultural goods. By charging too much, Munn, a grain warehouse based in Chicago, was found guilty of violating the law and appealed on the basis that the regulation was an unconstitutional removal of property.
The law was found constitutional as Chief Justice Morrison Remick Waite, who spoke for the majority, said that state power to regulate extends to private industries that affect the public interest. Because grain storage facilities were devoted to public use, their rates were subject to public regulation. This case allowed states to regulate businesses within their borders and was an important ruling as it showed how private enterprises can potentially be publicly regulated.
Muller v. Oregon (1908)
This case occurred prior to the law recognising sex discrimination – it wasn’t until 1971 in Reed v. Reed that sex-based discrimination was legally recognised. Therefore Muller v. Oregon was a landmark case, where Curt Muller, the owner of a laundry business, was convicted of violating Oregon labour laws after making a female employee work more than ten hours in a single day. Muller was fined $10 and appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court and then to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Muller’s attorney, William D. Fenton, contended that the statute violated Mrs Gotcher’s Fourteenth Amendment right to due process by preventing her from freely contracting with her employer.
They both upheld the constitutionality of the labour law and affirmed his conviction. The case established a precedent in 1908 to expand the reach of state activity into the realm of protective labour legislation and had important implications for protective labour legislation.
Near v. Minnesota (1931)
The 1925 Public Nuisance Bill, also known as the “Minnesota gag law,” had allowed judges to once close down newspapers that were deemed obscene or slanderous. In 1927, the Saturday Press, a newspaper based in Minneapolis, published articles attacking several public officials, one of them being politician Floyd B. Olson of being a pawn to conspiracy. Olson thus filed a complaint, and the Saturday Press were issued a temporary restraining order. The newspaper appealed under the First Amendment’s right to a free press. The Supreme Court decided the Public Nuisance law was unconstitutional, where Chief Justice Hughes wrote, “It is no longer open to doubt that the liberty of the press and of speech is within the liberty safeguarded by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment from invasion of state action.” This case ultimately stopped journalists from being censored.
Wickard v. Filburn (1942)
The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 was enacted to control how much wheat could be grown (in order to avoid another recession post the Great Depression). Filburn – a small farmer in Ohio who harvested nearly 12 acres of wheat above his allotment under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 – was penalized for doing so.
He sued on the basis that the extra wheat he had produced was for his own use (and not for sale) and thus had no effect on interstate commerce since it never had been on the market; therefore he believed he had not violated the law because the additional wheat was not subject to regulation under the Commerce Clause. The issue here was whether Congress had the authority to regulate local wheat production and a unanimous Court had upheld the law ruling that Congress had the power to regulate activities in the industry and respective states when the activities had substantial effects on interstate commerce.
This case led to the federal government having more power to regulate the economy.
Mapp v. Ohio (1961)
Dollree Mapp was convicted of possessing obscene materials which were found after the police forced their way into her home without a valid warrant, searching for a suspected bomber who they thought was hiding in her house. When charged, she appealed on the basis of freedom of expression.
In an opinion authored by Justice Tom C. Clark, the majority brushed aside First Amendment issues and declared that all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Fourth Amendment is inadmissible in a state court. This case led to the redefining of the rights of people being accused and limits how police can obtain evidence.
Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
This case is the reason why defendants and plaintiffs must have legal representation – especially in relation to criminal proceedings. Resulting in a decision where lawyers are ‘a necessity and not a luxury’, the Court held unanimously that state courts were required to appoint attorneys for those who could not afford their own counsel.
This was ruled after Clarence Gideon’s request to have counsel to represent him – during his trial where he was accused of a felony in Panama City – was refused by the Florida State’s Court. He represented himself, lost, then appealed, which led to counsel representation being extended to felony defendants.
Heart of Atlanta Motel v. US (1964)
The Heart of Atlanta Motel in Atlanta, Georgia, refused to accept Black Americans, even though Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade racial discrimination by places of public accommodation if their operations affected commerce. As the first case challenging the Civil Rights Act, the motel asked the court to stop the enforcement of a clause in Title II arguing it exceeded Congress’s power.
The Court ruled it was not exceeding Congress’s power and argued that since most of the motel’s business came from outside Georgia, discriminating against black people would have an impact on interstate commerce.
By upholding the Act, the Court legitimized and strengthened it, setting precedent for other racial discrimination cases.
United States v. Nixon (1974)
Triggered by the Watergate scandal, this case mirrors the UK’s Case of Proclamations, 1610, where the final ruling emphasized that ‘no one is above the law’, including the King.
A special prosecutor had asked President Nixon for recordings, but he refused on the notion that he had “executive privilege” that allowed him to withhold sensitive information to maintain confidential communications and national security. He released edited versions, which resulted in him and the prosecutor filing petitions.
The Supreme Court held unanimously that while there was limited executive privilege for military or diplomacy reasons, it wasn’t enough in this case, leading to Nixon handing in the tapes and his resignation.
 G. Edward White, Law in American History, Volume 1: From the Colonial Years Through the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 48–51.