The Constitutional Convention meets over the summer in Philadelphia's Independence Hall and writes what will become the U.S. Constitution. Article III of the Constitution, which establishes the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts but leaves the size of the Supreme Court to congressional discretion, states:
"The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services a Compensation which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office."
Congress passes the Federal Judiciary Act, making provisions for the organization and operation of the Supreme Court as well as the federal district courts. Although called for by the Constitution, the Court could not come into operation prior to this legislation. The act sets up a Court with one chief justice and five associate justices, and makes the justices personally responsible for presiding over circuit courts set up on a regional basis throughout the country.
On February 2, the Supreme Court holds its first public session in the Royal Exchange, at the foot of Broad Street in New York City. No cases are docketed for argument during the Court's first three terms, and -- besides the onerous travel commitments associated with circuit riding -- the justices have very little to do in the first years.
The Court follows the other branches of government as the nation's capital moves from New York to Philadelphia. It holds its sessions first in Independence Hall, then in a room in the newly built City Hall.
In February the Court issues its first important decision in the case of Chisholm v. Georgia, declaring that the state of Georgia is not immune to a lawsuit from a citizen of another state. The resulting political furor over the decision will lead to the adoption of the Eleventh Amendment (formally adopted in 1798), which prohibits the federal courts from hearing lawsuits brought by citizens of another state or a foreign country against a state. This protection is known as "sovereign immunity."
Following his acceptance of an appointment as Special Ambassador to England, Chief Justice John Jay travels across the Atlantic to negotiate what will become the Jay Treaty. Despite denunciations from critics claiming his actions to be a violation of the separation of powers, Jay does not resign from the Court. Jay's successor, Oliver Ellsworth, will later serve as Minister to France without resigning his post on the Court. The divided attention of the Court's first leaders does nothing to raise the institution's low prestige and weak authority.
John Jay runs for and is elected governor of New York, and resigns his post as chief justice to begin his new job. A New York newspaper characterizes the move as a "promotion" for Jay.
The Court is barely able to function due to numerous absences on the bench. Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth is in France, William Cushing is sick, and Samuel Chase is away in Maryland, working on the campaign for President John Adams's reelection.
The nation's capital moves again, this time to Washington, D.C. Due to an oversight indicative of the Supreme Court's low prestige, no plan is made for a Court building or accommodations. The Court moves into a space that had been originally intended for use by a House committee.
President John Adams appoints Chief Justice John Marshall.
The Court issues the landmark decision Marbury v. Madison, declaring sections of the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789 unconstitutional. Although state and lower federal courts had previously invoked the principle of judicial review, the Marbury decision marks the Supreme Court's first use of the doctrine to invalidate federal legislation on constitutional grounds. While the Court reviews numerous federal statutes in the coming decades, it does not again exercise the authority to invalidate a federal statute until 1857 -- when it holds the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional in the case Dred Scott v. Sandford.
Jeffersonian Republicans in the House vote to impeach Justice Samuel Chase, a Federalist justice since 1796. Republicans found their impeachment drive on the contention that Chase is "arbitrary, oppressive and unjust"; Chase counters that their effort is politically motivated and unrelated to the stated charges that he has committed "high crimes and misdemeanors." Ultimately acquitted by the Senate, Chase remains on the Court until his death in 1811. His acquittal sets a strong political precedent for an independent judiciary -- and for judicial discretion.
Fletcher v. Peck marks the first time the Supreme Court holds a state law unconstitutional. In voiding an act by the Georgia legislature repealing a corrupt land grant made by a previous state legislature, the Court rules that Georgia has violated the Contract Clause of the Constitution.
President James Madison appoints Joseph Story to the Court. Story, only 32 at the time, remains the youngest justice ever to have served on the Court.
In Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, the Court reasserts its power to review and overturn state court decisions touching on federal questions. The decision, written by Joseph Story, issues a strong rebuke to the high court of Virginia, which, in seeking to ignore an earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision, had claimed that its decisions were not constitutionally subject to federal review.
The Court rules in McCulloch v. Maryland that, under the implied powers doctrine, Congress has the constitutional authority to charter a national bank, and strikes a Maryland law imposing a state tax on all branches of the bank located within the state.
In Dartmouth College v. Woodward, the Court rules that the Contract Clause of the Constitution protects the corporate charter granted to Dartmouth from interference by New Hampshire's Republican-controlled state legislature.
In a victory for proponents of a strong national government, the Court invalidates a New York law that had granted an exclusive license for steam navigation in interstate waters between New York and New Jersey. The decision in Gibbons v. Ogden defines congressional powers in broad terms, leaving no doubt about the meaning of the Supremacy Clause of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.
In Worcester v. Georgia (one of the two Cherokee cases), the Court rules that Native American tribes are "dependent domestic nations" that maintain the legal right to all land they do not voluntarily cede to the United States. In defiance of the decision and in violation of numerous treaties between the federal government and various Indian nations, President Andrew Jackson sends troops to remove Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw tribes from their lands. This removal leads to death of many Cherokee in what became known as the "Trail of Tears."
President Andrew Jackson vetoes legislation to recharter the Second Bank of the United States, claiming the bank is unconstitutional. In his Veto Message, Jackson claims that even though the Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of the bank, as president he retains an executive right to veto the bill on constitutional grounds.
One of the amendments originally proposed by James Madison would have applied the Bill of Rights to states; it was dropped without ratification by the Senate on the reasoning that the states could protect individual rights in their own constitutions. The Supreme Court reaffirms this principle in Barron v. Baltimore, holding that the Fifth and other amendments in the Bill of Rights apply only to the federal government and not to the states.
Following Chief Justice John Marshall's death on July 6, President Andrew Jackson nominates Roger Taney to fill the position. Taney, a former Cabinet member in the Jackson administration and an instrumental aide in Jackson's attack on the Second Bank of the United States, is confirmed after three months of political wrangling.
The Taney Court issues its first major decision, Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge. The decision upholds the right of the Massachusetts legislature to charter the Warren Bridge Company to build an additional bridge across the Charles River in Boston. The Charles River Bridge Company, which since 1785 had held the sole such charter in Boston, had claimed that the new charter was an infringement of its contract rights. Taney's decision, which declares that "the happiness and prosperity of the community" may take priority over individual property rights, is a sharp departure from many of the precedents of the Marshall Court.
In Prigg v. Pennsylvania, a divided Court overturns the conviction of Edward Prigg, a slave-catcher prosecuted under a Pennsylvania law that criminalized the removal of black former slaves from the state. In the majority opinion, Associate Justice Joseph Story voids the Pennsylvania law because it denies slave holders the right to cross state lines in order to recover their runaway slaves -- a right protected by both Article IV of the Constitution and the federal 1793 Fugitive Slave Act. Six justices issue separate opinions.
The Court upholds a Pennsylvania law requiring that boats entering the Port of Philadelphia either employ a local pilot or pay a fee. The decision in Cooley v. Board of Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia states that the law does not conflict with the Commerce Clause of the Constitution granting Congress the right to regulate interstate commerce because the commerce affected by the law is entirely local in nature.
The Court issues its infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Writing for a 7-2 majority, Chief Justice Roger Taney rules against Scott -- a slave who had sued for his freedom after spending time in a free state and in a free territory (made free by the Missouri Compromise of 1820). The decision states that African Americans are not, and can never be, citizens of the United States and are therefore not entitled to sue in federal court. In invalidating the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which had already been repealed by Congress) the Court holds that the Constitution protects property in slaves and that, accordingly, Congress has no power to regulate slavery in the new territories.
The Court moves out of its room in the basement of the Capitol and into the old Senate Chamber of the same building, where it remains until moving into its present building in 1935.
Justice John A. Campbell resigns from the Court to join the Confederate government. After the Civil War, Campbell will become a powerful corporate attorney, returning to the Court's chambers to argue for the plaintiffs in the Slaughterhouse Cases.
In 1863, the Republican Congress expands the Supreme Court from nine to 10 justices, thus allowing President Abraham Lincoln to make additional appointments. In 1867, political antagonism with President Andrew Johnson prompts Congress to reduce the number of justices to eight, thereby preventing Johnson from making any new appointments. After Johnson's death in 1869, Congress returns the Court to nine justices, the number it has held ever since.
Chief Justice Taney dies. President Lincoln appoints Salmon P. Chase, a former abolitionist, as Chief Justice.
The Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, is ratified.
In a unanimous decision, the Court reverses the conviction of a man found guilty of paramilitary activity in support of the Confederacy. The decision in Ex parte Milligan, delivered after the end of the Civil War, holds that President Abraham Lincoln violated the Constitution when he authorized military tribunals and suspended the writ of habeus corpus during the war. Lambdin P. Milligan, tried and convicted of conspiracy in one such tribunal, is freed. During the war, in Ex parte Vallandingham (1864), the Court had ducked a case raising a similar issue.
The newly ratified Fourteenth Amendment makes all people born or naturalized in the United States citizens of the country, thereby negating the decision in Scott v. Sandford, which had declared even free blacks to be noncitizens. The amendment also places three new limitations on state power: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and 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." Finally, section 5 of the amendment gives Congress the power to enforce, through legislation, the provisions of the amendment. Beginning in the 1920s, the Court will interpret the Fourteenth Amendment to mean that many of the protections enumerated in the Bill of Rights apply not only to the federal government but also to the states.
Congress enacts a law permitting justices to retire at full salary after serving for at least 10 years, provided they have not yet turned 70. Prior to enactment of this bill, Supreme Court justices had no incentive to leave the court before their death, as no retirement benefits were offered.
The last of the Civil War Amendments, the Fifteenth, is ratified. The amendment does not guarantee the right to vote but says only that it cannot be denied on the grounds of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
In the Slaughterhouse Cases, the first decision regarding the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court interprets the amendment narrowly. Ironically, the cases have nothing to do with the rights of freed African Americans, but rather are the result of lawsuits brought by a group of white businessmen. In a 5-4 decision strongly opposed in dissents by Justices Stephen Field and Joseph Bradley, the Court holds that a distinction exists between state and federal citizenship, and that states are not required to provide their citizens with the same "privileges and immunities" they enjoy as national citizens. In the process, the Court rejects the claim of the Butchers' Benevolent Society of Louisiana that a state-created monopoly of butchers and livestock dealers is unconstitutional.
President Ulysses S. Grant appoints Morrison Waite Chief Justice.
In Kohl v. United States, the Court upholds the right of the federal government to exercise the power of eminent domain. The decision holds that this power, by which the government may seize private property in order to construct roads or other public facilities, is essential to the governmental duty to serve the public and outweighs any inconvenience to individuals.
Five Supreme Court justices, in conjunction with five senators and five representatives, participate in a joint electoral commission to end a stalemate in the contested 1876 presidential election. The commission votes 8-7 along party lines to award all disputed electoral ballots to the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, who had not won the popular vote. For their promise not to oppose this vote, the southern Democrats exact a promise from the Republican majority in Congress not to use the national authority to enforce the rights of black Americans against southern states.
The Court's decision in Munn v. Illinois upholds a state law setting a maximum price for the storage of grain in Chicago, rejecting the claim of the owner of a grain storage company that the law violates his property rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Waite states, "When private property is devoted to a public use, it is subject to public regulation." Justice Stephen Field's dissent argues that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits any regulation that destroys private property. His substantive interpretation doctrine becomes law in the 1890s.
Senator David Davis, a former Supreme Court Justice from 1862 to 1877, introduces a special bill in Congress to allow Associate Justice Ward Hunt early retirement benefits, on the condition that Ward resign from the Court within 30 days of the bill's passage. Although Hunt had not participated in any Court proceedings since suffering a stroke in 1878, he had refused to retire until he was eligible to receive full retirement benefits (at the time, 10 years' service was required for vestment). Hunt turns in his resignation within hours of the bill's passage.
The Court strikes the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which had prohibited racial discrimination by hotels, theaters, and other forms of public accommodation. The decision in the so-called Civil Rights Cases, a consolidation of suits from four states, holds that the Fourteenth Amendment does not provide the federal government with the power to ban private discrimination, and that the denial of public accommodation does not constitute a "badge of slavery" and is therefore not prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment.
President Grover Cleveland appoints Melville Fuller Chief Justice.
The Court decides, in the case In re Kemmler, that New York may continue to use the newly invented electric chair to execute criminals. The decision holds that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual" punishment applies to capital punishment only if it involves "torture or lingering death" -- which it determines death by the electric chair does not do.
Since the Judiciary Act of 1789, Supreme Court justices have "ridden circuit," a duty that required them to spend a majority of the year traveling to sit as trial judges in circuit courts. Although the Judiciary Act of 1891, which establishes the U.S. Court of Appeals, does not specifically relieve the justices of this duty, in practice they are no longer expected to sit in these courts. The circuit courts are formally abolished in 1911.
The Court, in Pollack v. Farmer's Loan & Trust Co., finds a federal income tax unconstitutional. Sections 2 and 9 of Article I of the Constitution state that federal capitation taxes may not be imposed directly, but must be apportioned based on the population of each state. The decision is reversed by the federal income tax amendment (the Sixteenth) 19 years later, in 1913.
In a case arising from one of the first suits brought by the Justice Department under the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Court votes eight to one to limit the reach of the act. The decision in United States v. E. C. Knight Company holds that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution does not allow Congress to regulate the "manufacture" of products -- in this case, sugar -- later shipped from one state to another becuase the manufacture itself does not take place in interstate commerce. The monopoly held by the American Sugar Refining Company and its subsidiaries is allowed to stand.
The Court issues its infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, upholding a Louisiana statute that requires "equal but separate [railroad] accommodations for the white and colored races." Writing for an 8-1 majority, Justice Henry Brown states that the segregation law does not "discriminate" among legal rights by race, but merely recognizes a "distinction" between races "which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color." Justice John Marshall Harlan's famous dissent in the case will become law after the Court's opinion in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
The Court strikes a state law barring Louisiana citizens and corporations from purchasing property insurance from out-of-state companies not licensed within the state. Written by Justice Rufus Peckham, the unanimous decision in Allgeyer v. Louisiana interprets the Fourteenth Amendment to protect a broad "liberty of contract" that severely limits the states' power to enact social or economic legislation.
The Court upholds as constitutional a Mississippi law requiring citizens to pass a literacy test before being allowed to vote. The decision in Williams v. Mississippi states that such tests do not violate the Fifteenth Amendment as long as they are applied equally to all applicants.
The Court issues its landmark decision in Lochner v. New York, using the Fourteenth Amendment to strike a state law that had set a maximum 60-hour work week for bakers. The 5-4 decision, written by Justice Rufus Peckham, holds that the law interferes with "the freedom of master and employee to contract with each other" on purportedly equal terms. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' dissent will become law in the future.
Future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis appears before the Court as an attorney, arguing for the state in Muller v. Oregon, a case that deals with a statute limiting the hours of women employed in laundries. Brandeis submits an unorthodox brief containing just two pages of legal arguments, followed by 113 pages of medical and sociological data documenting the degenerative effect of long hours on the health of women workers. In a departure from the Lochner decision of 1905, the Court unanimously upholds the Oregon law. Justice David J. Brewer's majority opinion finds a legitimate state interest in the law, stating that "as healthy mothers are essential to vigorous offspring, the physical well-being of woman becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength and vigor of the race."
President William Howard Taft promotes Associate Justice Edward D. White, a former member of the Confederate Army, to the Chief Justiceship.
In Weems v. United States, the Court holds for the first time that punishment must be appropriate and proportional to the crime. The Court overturns the sentence of a U.S. officer in the Philippines (then a U.S. territory): a 15-year prison term, hard labor, lifetime surveillance, and loss of his civil rights following his conviction for falsifying a document.
The Sixteenth Amendment, granting Congress the power to impose a federal income tax, is enacted.
The Seventeenth Amendment is enacted, establishing the direct election of U.S. Senators. Prior to this, Senators had been elected by state legislatures, with political disagreements often leaving long seat vacancies.
In Weeks v. United States, the Court establishes the Exclusionary Rule (evidence unconstitutionally obtained must be excluded from trial. The decision states that federal police (or law enforcement) agents violated the plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights when they entered his house without a warrant, and that therefore the confiscated private documents later used to convict him of illegally operating a lottery through the mail should have been excluded at his trial. The decision overturns Weeks's conviction.
The Court strikes as unconstitutional an Oklahoma "grandfather clause" limiting the right to vote to only those men whose grandfathers had been eligible to vote in 1867 (and therefore excluding all men of African descent). The decision in Guinn v. United States holds that the Oklahoma law is a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment, which extends the right to vote to U.S. citizens of all races.
In Hammer v. Dagenhart (also known as the "Child Labor Case"), the Court voids a federal statute that had prohibited the interstate shipment of goods produced by child laborers. The decision cites the Tenth Amendment in stating that only states may regulate child labor.
The Court upholds the constitutionality of the military draft. The decision in Arver v. United States holds that compulsive military service does not fall within the definition of "involuntary servitude" prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment.
Following the enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment, Congress passes the National Prohibition Enforcement (Volstead) Act, banning "intoxicating liquors" with more than 0.5 percent alcohol. The IRS is designated as the enforcer of the act. In 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment repeals the Eighteenth.
The Nineteenth Amendment extends the right to vote to women.
President Warren Harding appoints William Howard Taft Chief Justice. Taft, president from 1909 to 1913, remains the only American to have been both a U.S. President and a member of the Supreme Court.
Future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter appears before the Court on behalf of the National Consumers League in Adkins v. Children's Hospital. Frankfurter, arguing to uphold a Washington, D.C. minimum wage law for women, submits to the Court a "Brandeis brief" that provides extensive data regarding the economic plight of working women. The Court votes to overturn the law, looking to the 1905 decision in Lochner instead of the 1908 case Muller v. Oregon for precedent.
In Buck v. Bell, the Court upholds a Virginia law, purportedly designed to promote the "health of the patient and the welfare of society," which compels "feebleminded" women at state institutions to undergo sterilization procedures.
Chief Justice Taft convinces Congress to allocate funds to construct a building for the Supreme Court, which has never occupied a building of its own. Since 1860 the Court has met in the old Senate Chamber in the Capitol building. Construction begins in 1932.
Chief Justice William Howard Taft, suffering from ill health, announces his resignation; later that same day, President Herbert Hoover nominates Charles Evans Hughes to replace him. After a bitter confirmation fight, the Senate confirms Hughes's appointment. Hughes had served on the Court as an Associate Justice from 1910 to 1916, resigning to accept the Republican nomination for president and run against President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. Hughes lost the election, but later held posts in the Harding and Coolidge administrations before receiving his second appointment to the Court.
The Court reverses the convictions of the "Scottsboro boys," nine black men from Scottsboro, Alabama, who had been found guilty of raping a group of white women and sentenced to die. The Court finds, in Powell v. Alabama, that the young men's attorney had been appointed only on the morning of their trial and had therefore been unable to provide a meaningful defense. The case returns to the Alabama state court for a second trial, in which all nine are again convicted -- this time despite testimony from one alleged victim that no rape had occurred. Once again, the Supreme Court overturns their convictions, this time due to the exclusion of blacks from the jury. At a third trial, four of the men are convicted, one pleads guilty, and four have charges against them dropped.
The Twentieth Amendment shortens the interval between the election and inauguration of the President and Congress. Improvements in transportation and communications render a long delay before inauguration no longer necessary.
The Twenty-first Amendment repeals the Eighteenth.
In Nebbia v. New York, the Court upholds a New York law establishing minimum prices for the sale of milk -- one of several emergency measures the state has taken to ameliorate some of the economic hardships of the Great Depression. Since the late nineteenth century, the Court has held that states could only regulate those businesses that were "affected with public interest"; the decision in Nebbia breaks with that precedent, finding that states are "free to adopt whatever economic policy may reasonably be deemed to promote public welfare."
The Court moves out of the old Senate Chamber in the Capitol and into the newly completed Supreme Court Building, modeled after a classic Greek temple. Most of the justices initially recoil from the splendor of their new surroundings and follow Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes' lead in declining the use of their new private suites, instead continuing to work from home, as has been their custom. When Hugo Black joins the Court in 1937, he displays no such qualms -- and, because the justices' chambers have remained unoccupied, even though he is the Court's most junior justice he is able to move into an especially large and luxurious corner suite, which he will keep for the next 34 years.
In Grovey v. Townsend, the Court finds that white-only political primaries -- held, at the time, by the Democratic Party in several Southern states -- are constitutional. The decision states that political parties are private actors composed of voluntary members, and are therefore free to exclude non-whites.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announces his court-packing plan, proposing that Congress allow him to add one new justice to the Supreme Court for every sitting justice older than 70 (up to 15 justices). Roosevelt's proposal comes in the wake of several Court decisions overturning legislation -- including the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act -- central to Roosevelt's popular New Deal agenda. The proposal is never adopted, but over his next three terms Roosevelt will have the opportunity to appoint all nine members of the Court.
In a reversal of its 1923 decision in Adkins v. Children's Hospital, the Court upholds a Washington, D.C. minimum wage law for women and ushers in what historians have called the "Constitutional Revolution" of 1937. Writing for the 5-4 majority in West Coast Hotel v. Parrish, Chief Justice Hughes finds a "compelling" state interest in protecting workers from the "exploitation" of "unconscionable employers" like the West Coast Hotel Company, which had ignored the minimum-wage statute.
The Court continues the "Constitutional Revolution," voting to uphold the National Labor Relations Act (or Wagner Act) of 1935 -- a cornerstone of President Roosevelt's New Deal legislation that guarantees the right of unions to organize and bargain collectively without employer interference. The decision in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. broadly expands the reach of federal regulatory power to include the activities of mines, mills, and factories previously held to be only "local" in nature and therefore immune to such regulation.
Six weeks after issuing its opinion in the Jones & Laughlin case, the Court releases three more equally important decisions, upholding both the retirement benefits and the unemployment compensation provisions of the Social Security Act of 1935.
The Court upholds a Georgia poll tax in Breedlove v. Suttles. The decision states that because it is applied to all races, Georgia's poll tax violates neither the Fourteenth nor the Fifteenth Amendment. Some Southern states continue to employ poll taxes until the mid-1960s.
The Court unanimously upholds the Fair Labor Standards Act. The act, which is the last major piece of the New Deal legislation, establishes minimum wage and maximum hour labor standards in all industries producing goods to be shipped in interstate commerce. The decision in Darby Lumber Co. v. United States reverses several prior decisions, most notably the 1918 case Hammer v. Dagenhart.
President Roosevelt promotes Associate Justice Harlan Fiske Stone to Chief Justice.
In Galloway v. United States, the Court holds that a federal judge may reject a jury's verdict and direct it to enter another ("directed") verdict if the judge concludes that the jury had insufficient evidence to support its decision.
In United States v. White, the Court holds that the Fifth Amendment, protecting citizens against self-incrimination, applies only to individuals -- and not to organizations. The decision forces a labor organization under investigation to turn over its records.
In a reversal of its 1935 decision in Grovey v. Townsend, the Court holds that white-only primaries are unconstitutional. The decision in Smith v. Allwright cites the importance of primary elections to the democratic election process.
The Court issues its opinion in the wartime case Korematsu v. United States, which deals with a presidential order mandating that all Americans of Japanese heritage report to internment camps during World War II. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black recognizes that an executive order based on race is "suspect," but ultimately holds that emergency circumstances make the order constitutional. In 1988, Congress will pass the Civil Liberties Act, formally apologizing and issuing monetary reparations to Japanese Americans who had been forced into the internment camps.
President Harry Truman appoints Fred S. Vinson Chief Justice.
The Twenty-second Amendment, setting a two-term limit for the office of U.S. President, is enacted.
President Dwight Eisenhower appoints former California governor Earl Warren Chief Justice.
The Court issues its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. For more than 50 years, the "separate but equal" doctrine articulated in the 1896 Plessy decision has allowed school districts across the South to segregate their schools by race. The Court now returns to the segregation issue, and in a unanimous decision holds that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." The decision requires 20 states to desegregate their school systems and is a catalyst for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The Court rejects a black citizen's challenge to a state literacy test in Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections, holding that because the test is applied equally to all races, it is not discriminatory.
In Mapp v. Ohio, the Court applies the Exclusionary Rule, which bars the admission of evidence obtained via an illegal search and seizure, to state courts.
The Court upholds as constitutional a Florida statute exempting women from jury duty unless they voluntarily register to be called. The decision in Hoyt v. Florida states that the law is based on the reasonable premise that women are "still regarded as the center and home of family life," and so may be legally excused from otherwise mandated civic duties.
The Twenty-third Amendment is enacted, granting residents of Washington, D.C. the right to vote in presidential elections. The amendment awards the district the number of electors -- three -- that it would be allotted were it a state. Today, the district remains without representation in either the House of Representatives or the Senate; a 1978 proposed amendment to create seats for the district expired after being ratified by only 16 states within its seven-year time limit.
In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Court holds that states must provide an attorney for any defendant who cannot afford one. The requirement has been in place for federal courts since 1938.
The process of urbanization has left rural districts in many states wielding disproportionate political power. In Reynolds v. Sims, the Court holds all districts within state legislative bodies must be apportioned to accurately reflect the basic democratic principle of "one person, one vote" -- i.e, they must represent roughly the same number of voters. The decision prompts the reapportionment of numerous state legislatures.
The Twenty-fourth Amendment prohibits poll taxes, making it illegal to charge any voter for the right to vote in federal elections. In 1966, the Court extends the ban to states with its decision in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections.
The Court recognizes for the first time a general right to privacy in the case Griswold v. Connecticut. The landmark case overturns a Connecticut law prohibiting married couples from purchasing contraceptives. Citing provisions in the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Ninth amendments, the decision states that despite the Constitution's lack of explicit provision of this right, the framers intended for citizens to enjoy a "zone of privacy."
The Twenty-fifth Amendment clarifies the rules of succession for the presidency: if the office of vice president is vacated mid-term, the president will appoint a new vice president, subject to a vote of approval in both houses of Congress. The amendment also clarifies what will happen in the event of the death, resignation, or temporary incapacity of the president -- he or she will notify Congress if he or she needs to temporarily cede power to the vice president, as in the case of serious illness.
The Court issues its decision in the landmark case Miranda v. Arizona, holding that the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination is not limited to courtroom testimony but also applies when a suspect is taken into police custody for questioning. The decision states that before questioning a suspect, police must explain that he or she retains the right to remain silent, that any statements he or she makes may be used as evidence against him or her in court, and that he or she has the right to an attorney, who will be appointed if the suspect cannot otherwise afford one. Any evidence obtained before a suspect has been read his or her so-called "Miranda rights" is thereafter inadmissible in court.
President Richard Nixon appoints Warren Burger Chief Justice.
The Court upholds the right of a group of students to wear black armbands to their public school in protest of the Vietnam War. The decision in Tinker v. Des Moines states that the wearing of the armbands is an act "closely akin to 'pure speech'" and is therefore protected by the First Amendment.
Justice Abe Fortas resigns from the Court after an article in LIFE magazine reveals that he had accepted a $20,000 honorarium for consulting work he had done for a charitable organization run by a former client.
The Court hears an expedited appeal from THE NEW YORK TIMES after a lower court issues an injunction to prevent the paper from continuing to publish the so-called "Pentagon Papers" -- a 7,000-page classified document concerning United States military involvement in Vietnam, leaked to the paper by a disillusioned former Pentagon employee. The Court's opinion in New York Times Co. v. United States upholds the right of the paper to proceed with publication, stating the government failed to show such action would cause it to suffer "grave and irreparable" harm.
In McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, the Court holds that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial does not apply to juveniles if they are tried in juvenile court.
The Twenty-sixth Amendment lowers the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. Prior to the enactment of the amendment in the midst of the Vietnam War, men not yet old enough to vote had been drafted and sent to fight in the war.
Issuing its opinion in three consolidated cases known collectively as Furman v. Georgia, the Court finds provisions contained in the death penalty statutes of 41 states unconstitutional. The Court rules that capital punishment statutes allowing juries to have complete sentencing discretion are producing unconstitutionally arbitrary and discriminatory sentences. In the following years, 35 states draft new capital punishment laws that address the decision by establishing sentencing guidelines for judges and juries, listing crimes that carry a mandatory sentence of capital punishment, and/or creating lists of "aggravating" and "mitigating" factors for juries to consider in deciding a sentence.
The Court issues its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, striking as unconstitutional a Texas anti-abortion law. The 7-2 decision draws on the 1965 Griswold precedent in holding that the right to privacy extends, for women, to include the right to seek an abortion.
Citing the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of due process, the Court overturns a federal law granting preferential benefits to male members of the military. The law had automatically awarded a salary supplement to all married male personnel, as well as medical benefits to their wives, but gave the same benefits to female service members and their husbands only if they could demonstrate that the husband was dependent on the wife for at least half of his income. The decision in Frontiero v. Richardson holds that the law mandates "dissimilar treatment for men and women who are similarly situated" and is therefore unconstitutional.
Following grand jury indictments of seven of President Richard Nixon's closest aides for their involvement with the Watergate break-in and cover-up, a special prosecutor in charge of the investigation seeks to obtain tapes that Nixon made of his conversations. In United States v. Nixon, the Court rejects Nixon's claim that the Constitution affords him an "executive privilege" to deny the request, and compels him to turn over the tapes.
With its decision in three cases known together as Gregg v. Georgia, the Court again permits states to employ the death penalty. The decision states that capital punishment statutes are constitutional as long as they limit jury discretion in sentencing, provide for "bifurcated" trials (in which the determination of guilt or innocence and the sentencing remain separate), and create a clear process by which a defendant may immediately appeal a capital sentence.
In Ingraham v. Wright, the Court holds that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual" punishment applies only to criminal offenses and therefore does not bar the use of corporal punishment in schools.
A sharply divided Court holds, in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, that a university may use race as a criterion in its admissions process, as long as it is only one of many factors under consideration and no "fixed quotas" exist.
President Reagan nominates Sandra Day O'Connor to be the first female justice on the Court.
In Wallace v. Jaffree, the Court overturns an Alabama law authorizing public school teachers to lead "willing students" in prayer to "Almighty God" at the start of the school day. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens states that the law lacks a secular purpose and therefore seeks to establish religion in the public schools, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
President Reagan promotes William Rehnquist, an Associate Justice since 1972, to Chief Justice.
In a 5-4 decision, the Court upholds a Georgia antisodomy law in Bowers v. Hardwick. In refusing to extend the right to privacy to include sexual acts between consenting homosexual adults, the Court holds that states may constitutionally proscribe "any kind of private sexual conduct between consenting adults."
In United States v. Salerno, the Court upholds the Bail Reform Act of 1984. The act allows, for the first time, a judge to consider a suspect's appearance of dangerousness in setting the amount of his bail. The Court's decision states that the law does not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "excessive" bail.
In McCleskey v. Kemp, the most important death penalty case it has heard since the Gregg decision of 1976, the Court upholds the death sentence of a black man convicted of murdering a white police officer in Georgia. In petitioning the Court to overturn his sentence, Warren McCleskey had cited a statistical study conducted by a professor at the University of Iowa, showing that in the state of Georgia defendants whose victims were white were 4.3 times as likely to receive the death penalty as those whose victims were black. Writing for the majority, Justice Lewis Powell states that because McCleskey could not prove a discriminatory effect in his particular trial, his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments had not been violated.
In Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the Court rules that the Hazelwood School District did not violate its students' First Amendment rights when it removed two articles from their school newspaper prior to publication. The decision states that public schools may refuse to sponsor student speech in a school publication that is "inconsistent with 'the shared values of a civilized social order.'"
In Texas v. Johnson, a narrow 5-4 majority holds that burning the American flag is a form of "symbolic speech" protected by the First Amendment. Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan states, "If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." The defendant, Gregory Lee Johnson, had set fire to a flag outside the Dallas County Courthouse as a means of protesting Reagan administration policies.
A narrow 5-4 majority holds that the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of due process does not permit the parents of an incapacitated woman to refuse life-sustaining treatment for her. The decision in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health states that although the Fourteenth Amendment does normally allow citizens to reject life-support systems, the right does not extend to persons who have been incapacitated and are therefore not competent to make such a decision.
The Twenty-seventh Amendment is enacted, banning Congressional pay raises from going into effect until after the next election. James Madison had first proposed this amendment in 1789, at which time it had been ratified by some states -- though not enough for enactment. The amendment then lay dormant until 1982, when public outcry over a large congressional salary boost prompted a graduate student at the University of Texas to spearhead a campaign to revive the ratification process. By the time Michigan becomes the final state to ratify the amendment in 1992, more than 200 years have passed since the first states had signed on.
In a 5-4 decision, the Court upholds a woman's right to an abortion but devises a new legal standard to test whether a state restriction on that right is constitutional. The decision in Casey v. Planned Parenthood holds that states may restrict access to abortion as long as the restriction does not impose an "undue burden" -- defined as a "substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion before the fetus attains viability" -- on a woman seeking to end her pregnancy. Applying the test, the Court strikes a Pennsylvania provision that requires a wife to notify her husband prior to obtaining an abortion, but upholds a 24-hour waiting period as well as a requirement that minors obtain parental permission to have an abortion.
The Court strikes the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, which had 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." In passing the act, Congress had invoked its power to regulate interstate commerce, which it had used in the past to limit the manufacture and sale of guns available for sale in more than one state. In United States v. Lopez, however, the Court holds that Congress has exceeded its authority and that the power to regulate this type of criminal behavior belongs to the states.
The Court holds, in Vemonia School District v. Acton, that a public school requirement that student athletes consent to random drug testing is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. The decision states that the testing falls within a school's legitimate interest in protecting its students' well-being. In 2002, in the case Board of Education v. Earls, the Court will extend the decision to include random drug testing for students in non-athletic extracurricular activities as well.
The Court votes 7-1 to strike the long-standing male-only admission policy at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), the nation's last all-male public school as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Writing for the majority in United States v. Virginia, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg states that VMI has failed to show "exceedingly persuasive justification" for its
In a narrowly crafted opinion penned by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the Court overturns a 1985 decision and holds that it is constitutionally permissible for public school teachers to instruct parochial school students in neutral settings. The decision in Agostini v. Felton states that governments may constitutionally direct some educational funds to parochial schools without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
In one of the first cases dealing with the Internet to reach the Supreme Court -- Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union -- the Court strikes as unconstitutional the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The decision states that the act, which had criminalized the online transmission of "obscene or indecent" material, is overly broad and vague.
The Court votes 6-3 to strike the Line Item Veto Act as a violation of the Presentment Clause of the Constitution. The Court's ruling in Clinton v. New York states that the president must entirely approve or reject legislation that has passed both houses of Congress, and that by allowing the president to selectively veto portions of bills, the act had unconstitutionally extended to the executive the right to "amend" the laws before him.
In a highly controversial move, the Court intervenes in the contested presidential election of 2000, ordering the state of Florida to halt its ballot recount. The decision in Bush v. Gore allows the Florida Secretary of State to certify George W. Bush as the winner of the state's 25 electoral votes, thus enabling Bush to win the presidency.
The Court strikes some provisions of the federal Violence Against Women Act, holding that the act's creation of a right of action for female victims of gender-based violence to sue their attackers in federal court is unconstitutional. When it passed the bill, Congress specifically invoked its power to regulate interstate commerce, relying on research that demonstrated the harmful effects of violence against women to interstate commerce. However, in a ruling similar to that in the 1995 case U.S. v Lopez, the Court holds in United States v. Morrison that Congress has exceeded its authority in creating the act.
Overturning its decision in the 1986 case Bowers v. Hardwick, the Court strikes the Texas "Homosexual Conduct" law. The decision in Lawrence v. Texas holds that the law -- which criminalized sexual intimacy between gay couples but not similar actions by heterosexual couples -- violates the right to privacy.
The Court issues its decisions in two separate cases dealing with affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan. The Court's decision in Gratz v. Bollinger strikes the university's undergraduate admission policy, which uses a points system to rate applicants and awards automatic points to members of minority groups; however, the decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, issued the same day, upholds the more highly individualized policy used by Michigan's law school.
In 2001, U.S. forces in Afghanistan seized Yaser Hamdi, a U.S. citizen that the government believed to be fighting for the Taliban there. The government declared Hamdi to be an "enemy combatant" and transferred him to various military prisons in the United States. In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Court rules that by holding Hamdi indefinitely without charge or access to an attorney, the government has violated Hamdi's Fifth Amendment right to due process.
In Roper v. Simmons, the Court holds that capital punishment for juveniles aged 17 and younger is "cruel and unusual" punishment and therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The decision cites "evolving" social attitudes in the United States as well as internationally and notes that only five other countries in the world permit the execution of juveniles.
In a narrow 5-4 ruling, the Court decides in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union, which had brought suit against two Kentucky counties for displaying the Ten Commandments in courthouses and public schools. The decision in McCreary County v. ACLU holds that the display is in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
President Bush nominates Samuel Alito to replace Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has decided to retire. The Senate will confirm Alito in January 2006.
President George W. Bush appoints John Roberts Chief Justice.
In a case dealing with the due process rights of a former chauffeur to Osama bin Laden, the Court rules that the military tribunals set up by the Bush Administration violate the Geneva Convention. The decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld states that because the executive branch does not possess the inherent power to authorize the tribunals, and because no act of Congress has explicitly authorized them, the tribunals are not constitutionally permissible. In the absence of other legislation, both the Geneva Convention and the Uniform Code of Military Justice apply, and Hamdan's trial, parts of which he had been excluded from in violation of these codes, was therefore illegal.