Historic Supreme Court Cases

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

Racial Discrimination Cases

Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 (1896) (W|L)

  • In 1896, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Justice Henry Brown of Michigan delivered the majority opinion, which sustained the constitutionality of Louisiana's Jim Crow law. In part, he said:  "We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiffs argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it. The argument also assumes that social prejudice may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured except by an enforced commingling of the two races. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, they cannot put them upon the same plane."

Brown v. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 (1954) (W|L)

  • On May 17, 1954, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling in the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. State-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th amendment and was therefore unconstitutional. This historic decision marked the end of the "separate but equal" precedent set by the Supreme Court nearly 60 years earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson and served as a catalyst for the expanding civil rights movement during the decade of the 1950s. Arguments were to be heard during the next term to determine just how the ruling would be imposed. Just over one year later, on May 31, 1955, Warren read the Court's unanimous decision, now referred to as Brown II, instructing the states to begin desegregation plans "with all deliberate speed."

Loving v. Virginia 388 U.S. 1 (1967) (W|L)

  • Proceeding on motion to vacate sentences for violating state ban on interracial marriages. The Circuit Court of Caroline County, Virginia, denied motion, and writ of error was granted. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, 206 Va. 924, 147 S.E.2d 78, affirmed the convictions, and probable jurisdiction was noted. The United States Supreme Court, Mr. Chief Justice Warren, held that miscegenation statutes adopted by Virginia to prevent marriages between persons solely on basis of racial classification violate equal protection and due process clauses of Fourteenth Amendment.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke 438 U.S. 265 (1978) (W|L)

  • White male whose application to state medical school was rejected brought action challenging legality of the school's special admissions program under which 16 of the 100 positions in the class were reserved for "disadvantaged" minority students. School cross-claimed for declaratory judgment that its program was legal. The trial court declared the program illegal but refused to order the school to admit the applicant. The California Supreme Court, 18 Cal.3d 34, 132 Cal.Rptr. 680, 553 P.2d 1152, affirmed the finding that the program was illegal and ordered the student admitted and the school sought certiorari. The Supreme Court, Mr. Justice Powell, held that: (1) the special admissions program was illegal, but (2) race may be one of a number of factors considered by school in passing on applications, and (3) since the school could not show that the white applicant would not have been admitted even in the absence of the special admissions program, the applicant was entitled to be admitted.

Dred Scott v. Sandford 60 U.S. 393 (1857) (W|L)

  • Court ruled that people of African descent, whether or not they were slaves, could never be citizens of the United States, and that the United States Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories. The Court also ruled that slaves could not sue in court, and that slaves—as chattel or private property—could not be taken away from their owners without due process.

Korematsu v. United States 323 U.S. 214 (1944) (W|L)

  • American citizens of Japanese descent can be interned and deprived of basic constitutional rights; first application of the strict scrutiny test.

Heafey Law Library Research Team