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The Power of the Supreme Court

A look at some of the Supreme Court decisions that have shaped policy in the United States.

Story Series
Simply Civics

The common understanding of our Separation of Powers system of government is that the Congress writes and passes laws, the President signs and executes the laws and the Courts, particularly the Supreme Court, interprets and applies the laws according to constitutional principles. While this is an accurate definition of our system, it does not fully appreciate the enormous policymaking power of the federal courts to move beyond their established role in government to revise and “re-invent” the meaning of constitutional principles based on the social conditions and political circumstances of the times.

Over the course of the history of this nation, the Supreme Court has delivered numerous significant decisions that have shaped our country in areas such as civil rights, criminal rights, reproductive rights, and gender rights. These decisions have had a major impact on the way we live and work and think as a people and as a country. Many of these decisions have created deep-seated disagreements and even conflicts in our society, but all of them are remembered as part of our national narrative as the Courts seek to determine the character and course of our nation.

To show the policymaking impact of Supreme Court decisions over time, the following are some of the most important and controversial cases that have come before the Justices for their decisions:

Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857

Written by Chief Justice Roger Taney, the Dred Scott decision established that the Constitution does not consider slaves to be U.S. citizens but rather protected property of their slave masters. Despite the fact that Scott traveled with his master to a free state, Illinois, and then back to a slave state, Missouri, Justice Taney stated that Scott never was free and accented the importance of state’s rights as the basis for his decision. Dred Scott v. Sanford is often considered one of the factors instrumental in pushing this country into the Civil War.

Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896

A continuation of Supreme Court decisions upholding slavery, as police arrested a “colored man,” Homer Plessy, who was one-eighth black, for refusing to leave a whites only railroad car. The Court upheld such racial restrictions, often called Jim Crow laws, stating that such laws did not violate the Constitution as long as states supported “separate but equal” treatment. As history shows, states did not provide separate but equal accommodations, transportation, bathroom facilities and even water fountains.

Brown v. Board of Education, 1954

The decision in a case out of Topeka, Kansas ended the “separate but equal” standard of treatment for blacks and supported a desegregated public school system. Public schools in black neighborhoods were clearly unequal in terms of funding for books, buildings, and teacher-student ratios. Although there was extensive resentment among whites for the desegregation policy of the Court, the Brown decision along with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the era of integration in all aspects of race relations began in earnest.

Engle v. Vitale, 1962

The state of New York Board of Regents wrote and authorized a voluntary, non-denominational prayer that was to be read at the beginning of each school day. Some parents objected to the prayer and brought suit. The school board stated that because the prayer was voluntary, it was protected by the First Amendment freedom of speech. The Court decided 6-1 that the prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and was in violation of the long-standing principle of separation of church and state. In recent years, the Court in a case out of Bremerton, Washington upheld the right of a public high school football coach to pray with his players at the end of the game as protected by his right of free speech and religious liberty. The decision was viewed by many as a breakdown of the walls of separation standard.

Gideon v. Wainwright, 1963

A significant decision in advancing the rights of criminals by the Supreme Court involved the state of Florida’s conviction of Clarence Gideon for breaking into a pool hall, a felony. But since he was poor and could not afford a lawyer to defend him, Gideon was sent to prison. Gideon appealed and the Court stated that the government must provide legal counsel to defendants in felony cases, therefore establishing the legal standard of the right of citizens charged with a crime to counsel by a public defender.

Miranda v. Arizona, 1966

The Supreme Court held that Ernesto Miranda’s confession to kidnapping and rape was unconstitutional on the basis that the confession was gained without Miranda being informed of his right to remain silent and his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. This decision led to the now famous Miranda rights practice that police must follow when arresting an alleged criminal.

Roe v. Wade, 1973

Norma McCorvey, a woman in Texas, sought an abortion but was not permitted to have the procedure. The Court decided that the Texas policy violated McCorvey’s right to choose based on a right to privacy. Although there is no right to privacy in the Constitution, the Court majority found that such privacy is understood by the wording of the Fifth and 14th Amendments. The ruling, one of the most controversial in the history of the Court, established standards for abortion permitting the procedure usually up until the third month of the pregnancy. Subsequent decisions addressed abortion rights for minors and sites where abortions can be carried out, but the right to an abortion as stated in the Roe decision remained in place until 2022.

Obergefell v Hodges, 2015

The Court in a divided decision held that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment provides and guarantees the right to marry as an essential liberty that must be protected, and that the protection applies to same-sex couples just like opposite-sex couples. The decision opened the doors for gay couples to be married as a state-sanctioned right. Just like the Roe decision, Obergefell was heavily criticized by conservatives but eventually received widespread support.

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 2022

In a decision with momentous constitutional and political implications, the Supreme Court with Justice Samuel Alito writing for the majority stated the Constitution did not confer a right to an abortion and that the right to regulate abortion is “returned to the people and their elected representatives.” To date, 28 states have passed legislation denying access to abortion with varying time limits and circumstances.

At the present time, the Dobbs case is at center stage of national electoral politics, not only because the decision removed what was a precedent-setting right that many women viewed as encased in the law, but because both President Biden and former President Trump have made abortion rights an integral part of their campaign strategy. Just like the Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education decisions were instrumental in the civil rights movement, the decisions of the Supreme Court of today play a large role in how this nation views its values, beliefs and rights with respect to women and reproduction. It is important to remember that the justices of federal judiciary are political appointees of the President and in the case of the Dobbs decision, the three conservative justices appointed by President Trump made not just a constitutional statement but a political one as well. As many pundits have said often, “elections matter,” and thus a nearly 50 years right to have an abortion has now been negated by over half of the states as a conservative dominated Supreme Court exercised its policymaking role.