4 Supreme Court Judgements That Shaped US Law

supreme court gavel

As the highest court in the United States, the Supreme Court has handled some of the more critical cases pertaining to how the laws have changed and advanced in this country. In this article, we’ll be looking at four landmark cases in American law and how the judgments passed on them by the supreme court changed, or created, the laws that affect us every day.

Marbury v. Madison, 1803 

One of the lesser-known rulings of the Supreme Court, Marbury v. Madison, still had hugely far-reaching consequences as it established the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review over Congress. This meant that the Supreme Court could declare laws passed by Congress to be unconstitutional.

 

This landmark ruling not only changed the process through which laws were enacted and challenged in the US, but also further defined the boundaries between the executive and judicial branches of the United States government.

McCulloch v. Maryland, 1819

Another case that had a significant impact on how the United States is governed, McCulloch v. Maryland helped to establish the federal government’s implied powers over states. 

 

The case itself is slightly dry, having to do with the state of Maryland imposing tax on all banknotes not chartered by Maryland. Since the only non-state bank in Maryland was the Second Bank of the United States, this was interpreted as an attack on the federal bank. The new tax law was deemed unconstitutional, cementing the powers of the federal government.

Miranda v. Arizona, 1966 

If you’ve ever watched a police procedural show, you’ll have undoubtedly heard one of the characters reading a freshly apprehended criminal their ‘Miranda Rights.’ Miranda Rights ensure that police advise people in custody of their rights before questioning them and is now a core part of police procedure in every state.

 

At the time, the judgment was controversial, with the Supreme Court split 5/4, eventually ruling that the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prevents prosecutors from using a person’s statements made in response to interrogation in police custody as evidence at their trial unless they can show that the person was informed of the right to consult with an attorney before and during questioning. 

 

Additionally, suspects had to be informed of their right against self-incrimination before police questioning, and that the defendant not only understood these rights, but also voluntarily waived them.

United States v. Nixon, 1974

In a case that has become far more relevant in the last few years, in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that sitting Presidents could not use their executive powers to withhold evidence during a criminal investigation. They could also not claim executive privilege to withhold evidence being requested by a court during a criminal investigation.

 

As most people know, this ruling pertains to the Watergate scandal. When a lower court requested copies of tapes that contained incriminating evidence against the people under investigation, and possibly the president himself, Nixon refused, citing executive privilege.

 

The Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had no right to invoke executive privilege to obstruct a criminal investigation, and the tapes were eventually released, resulting in the president resigning. 

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Written by:

Lisa Myers, J.D., L.L.M.

Legal Studies Department Director

J.D. L.L.M. Campbell University

B.A. Corllins University