Part I in a two-part series.
Over the 230-year history since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, the Supreme Court has weighed in on many big issues, from free speech, abortion and discrimination to freedom of religion, gun rights, and the powers of the president. Here is a list of 10 of the most important Constitutional cases of all time. While people will surely differ on the exact make-up up this list, most would agree with many of these choices. Final point: this is not a list of the “best” or most admirable cases, but rather a list (in no particular order) of those that had the greatest impact in how we interpret and understand the Constitution.
1. Marbury v. Madison (1803): Marbury forms the bedrock of our Constitutional system. At one level, Marbury was a mundane case: Mr. Marbury wanted a modest job given to him in the waning hours of John Adams’ presidency, but the new president, Thomas Jefferson, refused to let Marbury have the job. At another level, the case is of towering importance. The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshal), held in Marbury that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and the Supreme Court— not the President or Congress—has final say in its interpretation. This famous ruling helped establish judicial review and rule of law in America by establishing the Court’s power to (A) order a President to obey the law (in this case, the power to order Jefferson to give Marbury the job), and (B) invalidate any law passed by Congress that contradicts the Constitution (in this case a law that improperly let Marbury bring his case directly to the Supreme Court). The clear messages of Marburyis that no one is above the law, and the Supreme Court has the final say on the Constitution. Over the history of America, the Court has gone on to strike down hundreds of actions by Congress and the President because they ran afoul of our most fundamental protector of liberty: the Constitution.
Relevance today: Marbury allows the courts to protect our fundamental liberties from unlawful actions by the President or Congress, or by state or local officials.
2. Brown v. Board of Education (1954): Brown was the culmination of a decades long battle to end racial segregation in school. In Brown, a unanimous court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren held that racial segregation in schools was “inherently unequal” and thus violated the guarantee of “Equal Protection” set out in the 14th Amendment. Brown started a contentious and sometimes violent decades-long effort across the nation to integrate public schools.
Relevance today: Today, no public school can deny admission to a student based on race (and thanks to civil rights laws and court rulings, this prohibition also applies to private schools). We take this for granted today, but it was the reality for millions of children prior to Brown.
3. Youngtown Sheet and Tube v. Sawyer (1952).In the famous “Steel Seizure” case, the Court found that President Truman had exceeded his executive power when he seized steel mills during the Korean War. Truman argued that the mills were needed to support the war effort. In Youngstown, Justice Jackson created the key test—still used today—for determining whether an act of the President is lawful, and here the Court found that Truman’s actions were contrary to both the will of Congress and the Constitution itself.
Relevance today: Youngstown serves as a guide when the Court is faced with the weighty question of whether the President’s actions are within his Constitution powers. For example, if the President today tried to end Medicaid, the Court could use Youngstown to rule that such an action is unlawful because it is beyond the power of the President.
4. Lochner v. New York (1905): The infamous case of Lochner is included not for its own merit, but rather for the line of cases that overturned Lochner. Lochner had struck down a worker-protection law limiting the work of bakery employees to no more than 10 hours a day. Citing principles of laissez faire capitalism, the Court ruled that such a law violated freedom of contract. With Lochner as a guide, the Court went on to strike down numerous “New Deal” laws championed by President Franklin Roosevelt in his effort to pull the country out of the Great Depression. However, the death of Lochner was foretold by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who dissented in Lochner and famously declared that the Constitution does not adopt any particular economic theory. As the Depression worsened, Lochner’s support faded. By the 1930’s the Court rejected Lochner’s core premise—that the Constitution enshrines pure laissez faire capitalism and forbids Congress from intruding in that sphere—and instead ruled that Congress had wide latitude to pass labor and economic laws under its Constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce.
Relevance today: Workers today benefit from a host of federal laws—minimum wage, workplace conditions, overtime, collective bargaining, etc.—that have their roots in the Lochner period.
5. United States v. Lopez (1995): Just as the anti-Lochner cases stand for a very wide view of Congressional law-making power, Lopez reins in that power. Lopez involved a law banning guns within 1000 feet of schools. While the court said that this may very well be a sensible law, it simply had nothing to do with interstate commerce or with any of the other powers granted to Congress under the Constitution. The law was invalid not because it was a bad law, but because Constitution had no power to pass the law.
Relevance today: Lopez does two things; it protects Americans today from an overreaching Congress, and it reminds America of a central principle of our founding: that our federal government has those— and only those—powers given to it by the Constitution. All other powers remain with the states. This ties directly back to America’s founding, and to the “Federalist/Anti-Federalist” debates over whether to ratify the Constitution. Having just fought a war of independence against a country with an all-powerful, centralized ruler (King George III), the Anti-Federalists insisted that the newly created American government must not be too powerful, and that key government powers must remain at the local level. Lopez reinforces this central premise of the Constitution.
Ben Lenhart is a graduate of Harvard Law School and has taught constitutional law at Georgetown Law Center for more than 20 years. He lives with his family and lots of animals on a farm near Hillsboro.