Historic Supreme Court Cases

This is a sampling of some of the major Supreme Court cases that are frequently studied in law school

Federalism Cases

Marbury v. Madison 5 U.S. 137 (1803) (W|L)

  • Outgoing President John Adams had issued William Marbury a commission as justice of the peace, but the new Secretary of State, James Madison, refused to deliver it. Marbury then sued to obtain it. With his decision in Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall established the principle of judicial review, an important addition to the system of checks and balances created to prevent any one branch of the Federal Government from becoming too powerful. The document shown here bears the marks of the Capitol fire of 1898. A Law repugnant to the is void. With these words written by Chief Justice Marshall, the Supreme Court for the first time declared unconstitutional a law passed by Congress and signed by the President. Nothing in the Constitution gave the Court this specific power. Marshall, however, believed that the Supreme Court should have a role equal to those of the other two branches of government.

Hammer v. Dagenhart 247 U.S. 251 (1917) (W|L)

  • The Keating-Owen Child Labor Act prohibited the interstate shipment of goods produced by child labor. Reuben Dagenhart's father had sued on behalf of his freedom to allow his fourteen year old son to work in a textile mill. Day spoke for the Court majority and found two grounds to invalidate the law. Production was not commerce, and thus outside the power of Congress to regulate. And the regulation of production was reserved by the Tenth Amendment to the states. Day wrote that "the powers not expressly delegated to the national government are reserved" to the states and to the people. In his wording, Day revised the Constitution slightly and changed the intent of the framers: The Tenth Amendment does not say "expressly." The framers purposely left the word expressly out of the amendment because they believed they could not possibly specify every power that might be needed in the future to run the government.

NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. 301 U.S. 1 (1937) (W|L)

  • With the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, Congress determined that labor-management disputes were directly related to the flow of interstate commerce and, thus, could be regulated by the national government. In this case, the National Labor Relations Board charged the Jones & Laughlin Steel Co. with discriminating against employees who were union members. The Court held that the Act was narrowly constructed so as to regulate industrial activities which had the potential to restrict interstate commerce. The justices abandoned their claim that labor relations had only an indirect effect on commerce. Since the ability of employees to engage in collective bargaining (one activity protected by the Act) is "an essential condition of industrial peace," the national government was justified in penalizing corporations engaging in interstate commerce which "refuse to confer and negotiate" with their workers.

McCullough v. Maryland 17 U.S. 316 (1819) (W|L)

  • In the landmark Supreme Court case McCulloch v. Maryland, Chief Justice John Marshall handed down one of his most important decisions regarding the expansion of Federal power. This case involved the power of Congress to charter a bank, which sparked the even broader issue of the division of powers between state and the Federal Government. In 1816 Congress established the Second National Bank to help control the amount of unregulated currency issued by state banks. Many states questioned the constitutionality of the national bank, and Maryland set a precedent by requiring taxes on all banks not chartered by the state. In 1818 the State of Maryland approved legislation to impose taxes on the Second National Bank chartered by Congress.

Martin v. Hunter's Lessee 14 U.S. 304 (1816) (W|L)

  • Lord Fairfax held land in Virginia. He was a Loyalist and fled to England during the Revolution. He died in 1781 and left the land to his nephew, Denny Martin, who was a British subject. The following year, the Virginia legislature voided the original land grant and transferred the land back to Virginia. Virginia granted a portion of this land to David Hunter. The Jay Treaty seemed to make clear that Lord Fairfax was entitled to the property. The Supreme Court declared that Fairfax was so entitled, but the Virginia courts, where the suit arose, refused to follow the Supreme Court's decision. The Court rejected the claim that Virginia and the national government were equal sovereigns. Reasoning from the Constitution, Justice Story affirmed the Court's power to override state courts to secure a uniform system of law and to fulfill the mandate of the Supremacy Clause.

United States v. Nixon 418 U.S. 683 (1974) (W|L)

  • Prosecution of former government officials and presidential campaign officials for conspiracy to defraud United States and to obstruct justice, and for other offenses, wherein special prosecutor caused third-party subpoena duces tecum to be issued directing the President to produce tape recordings and documents relating to conversations with aides and advisors. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia, denied the President's motion to quash subpoena, 377 F.Supp. 1326, and an appeal was taken. Certiorari before judgment was granted to bring matter before Supreme Court before disposition by Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court, Mr. Chief Justice Burger, held that dispute was justiciable; that District Court was not shown to have erred in determining that special prosecutor's showing of relevancy, admissibility, and specificity was sufficient to warrant issuance of order; and that President's generalized interest in confidentiality, unsupported by claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, could not prevail against special prosecutor's demonstrated, specific need for the tape recordings and documents.

Baker v. Carr 369 U.S. 186 (1962) (W|L)

  • Appellants are persons allegedly qualified to vote for members of the General Assembly of Tennessee representing the counties in which they reside. They brought suit in a Federal District Court in Tennessee under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, to redress the alleged deprivation of their federal constitutional rights by legislation classifying voters with respect to representation in the General Assembly. They alleged that, by means of a 1901 statute of Tennessee arbitrarily and capriciously apportioning the seats in the General Assembly among the State's 95 counties, and a failure to reapportion them subsequently notwithstanding substantial growth and redistribution of the State's population, they suffer a "debasement of their votes," and were thereby denied the equal protection of the laws guaranteed them by the Fourteenth Amendment. They sought, inter alia, a declaratory judgment that the 1901 statute is unconstitutional and an injunction restraining certain state officers from conducting any further elections under it. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the grounds that it lacked jurisdiction of the subject matter and that no claim was stated upon which relief could be granted. Held: 1. The District Court had jurisdiction of the subject matter of the federal constitutional claim asserted in the complaint. Pp. 198-204. 2. Appellants had standing to maintain this suit. Pp. 204-208. 3. The complaint's allegations of a denial of equal protection presented a justiciable constitutional cause of action upon which appellants are entitled to a trial and a decision. Pp. 208-37.

Heafey Law Library Research Team