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Justice Resources: 15 Game-Changing American Trials

The history of the United States is closely tied to the justice system. Many court cases have set precedents for future trials in the country. Here’s a look at 15 of the most important and famous court cases in United States history.

The Salem Witch Trials (1692)

These trials prosecuted people who were suspected of practicing witchcraft. The trials were heard across the colonial Massachusetts counties of Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolk from February 1692 to May 1693. In the trials at the court of Oyer and Terminer in Salem Town, more than 150 people were caught and put into prisons. Altogether, twenty-nine people were convicted of committing witchcraft, which was a capital felony. Nineteen of the accused were hanged, five died in prison, and one man was crushed to death by stones.

The Salem Witch Trials are well-known because they are a black mark in the history of American justice. From the judicial procedures to the executions, everything was carried out with the express purpose of rooting out witchcraft in the community. It only took one afflicted person to lodge a complaint for an arrest warrant to be issued against the suspected witch. The trials and the executions were also carried out hastily.

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

In 1803, William Marbury filed a petition to push Secretary of State James Madison to deliver the commission so that he could assume his office as the Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia. Before Thomas Jefferson took office as the third President of the United States, the outgoing President John Adams had appointed a number of Federalist circuit judges and justices of peace who became known as the “Midnight Judges”. One of these justices of peace was Marbury. When Jefferson assumed office, he stopped the commissions from going out to the rest of the judges who had yet to receive their papers. The Supreme Court's Chief Justice John Marshall ruled against Marbury, stating that the part of the statute in the Judiciary Act of 1789 on which Marbury based his claim was “unconstitutional”. 

Marbury v. Madison was known as the Supreme Court’s first great case because it established the basis for judicial review in the U.S. according to Article III of the Constitution. The decision of the Supreme Court exhibited the American government’s concept of “checks and balances” whereby courts have the power to examine and dissolve the actions of another branch of government.

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

The case was filed by John James in 1819 on behalf of the state of Maryland against James McCulloch, the head of the Baltimore branch of the Second Bank of the United States. Since Second Bank of the United States was an out-of-state bank, Maryland sought to impose a tax on all the bank’s notes which were not chartered in the state. McCulloch refused to pay the tax. When the case was appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the court ruled that Bank of the United States was unconstitutional because “the Constitution is silent on the subject of banks” which implied that the federal government had no specific powers to charter a bank. The case was brought to the Supreme Court where the earlier decisions were reversed in favor of McCulloch. According to Chief Justice Marshall, Congress had the power to charter the bank and it would be unconstitutional for the state of Maryland to impose the tax on the Second Bank of the United States.

McCulloch v. Maryland was a landmark decision because it established that Congress has constitutional powers to implement regulations throughout the nation. Secondly, state governments may not hinder valid constitutional federal exercises of power.

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)

The case was filed on Feb 5, 1824, and the decision came on March 2, 1824. The state of New York had granted a license of exclusive boat navigation within the state to Robert R. Livingston and Robert Fulton. In turn, they granted a license to Aaron Ogden. Another steamship trader, Thomas Gibbons, was granted a federal license to conduct his business from Elizabethtown in New Jersey to New York City. Ogden filed a complaint to restrict Gibbons from operating on the New York waterways. The case was argued by William Wirt and Daniel Webster for Gibbons. Thomas Addis Emmet and Thomas J. Oakley argued for Ogden. The Court of Errors of New York and the Court of Chancery of New York ruled in favor of Ogden. In the appeal to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Marshall reversed the decision in favor of Gibbons.

Gibbons v. Ogden was a landmark case because it expanded Congress’ power to regulate commerce as outlined by the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Before the case, the Commerce Clause was thought to only apply to interstate commerce. According to Marshall, the federal government has the power to overrule the states if there are conflicts in laws.

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

Dred Scott was a Missouri slave who started serving U.S. Army Major John Emerson in 1832. After Emerson’s death in 1843, his wife Eliza became the owner of the slave, whom she hired out for profits. Scott wanted to purchase his freedom but Eliza refused. In 1846, Scott sued to get his freedom. Since he was born in a free territory and resided in a place where slavery was outlawed by the Missouri Compromise of 1920, he should've been a free man. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Scott was a slave so he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court concluded that a person of African descendant can never be a citizen of the U.S. and Congress cannot ban slavery in U.S. territories.

Dred Scot v. Sandford was a landmark decision because it upheld Articles III and IV of the U.S. Constitution which was interpreted by Justice Taney to mean that a citizen of a state must be a U.S. citizen. National citizenship could only be conferred by Congress. Taney stressed that not a single descendant of an American slave had ever been awarded citizenship under Article III. As such, African Americans shouldn’t be protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

After the American Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment was introduced to abolish slavery. The state of Louisiana passed a law to provide “separate but equal” railway cars for African Americans and whites. In 1892, Homer Adolph Plessy (a light-skinned African American) boarded a “whites only” car and announced that he had an African American ancestor. When he refused to move to a car for blacks, he was arrested and jailed. Plessy filed a suit against the state of Louisiana on the basis that the train segregation law deprived him of his rights provided by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. Judge John Howard Ferguson ruled in favor of the state. Then, the Supreme Court of Louisiana held Judge Ferguson’s decision, prompting Plessy to bring the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the decision on May 18, 1896, the Court ruled the Louisiana statute had not violated the Fourteenth Amendment in any way, stating that the law for racial segregation was purely public policy.

The decision in Plessy v. Ferguson solidified the doctrine of “separate but equal” which meant that it’s legal for states to practice racial separation as long as the facilities are equal. It implied that racial segregation was not a form of unlawful discrimination.

Schenck v. United States (1919)

Charles Schenck, the secretary of the Socialist Party printed and distributed 15,000 leaflets to men who were eligible to join the army to sway them from answering the draft. Schenck was convicted for trying to obstruct the draft. In January 1919, Schenck filed a case against the Federal Government for violating his rights to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. ruled Scheck’s conviction was constitutional and sentenced him to six months in prison. Since World War I was happening, Schenk’s actions were against the recruitment practice in U.S. Armed Forces during the state of war.

Schenck v. United States is a landmark decision because it provided another interpretation of the First Amendment. In other times, Schenck would have every right to print and distribute the leaflets, exercising his rights to freedom of speech. When there’s a “clear and present danger”, the right to free speech must be exercised with caution and concern for the security of the country.

Sacco and Vanzetti (1921)

Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants who were convicted of murder in 1920. In 1927, they were executed. Sacco and Vanzetti were accused of murdering a factory paymaster and his guard, escaping with more than $15,000 in South Braintree, Massachusetts. The police linked the robbery to the Galleanist anarchist movement, and the police arrested two men for the crime. John P. Vahey acted as the defense attorney while Norfolk and Plymouth County District Attorney Frederick Katzmann was the prosecutor. The judge was Webster Thayer. While there were controversial and contradicting evidences, Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty in two high profile trials. After a Portuguese man, Celestino Medeiros, admitted that he was involved in the South Braintree incident, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts denied the motion for a new trial, and upheld the earlier convictions.

The case of Sacco and Vanzetti was considered a major trial because it involved two self-proclaimed anarchists. It was sensational because until the final verdict, there was no concrete evidence which proved that Sacco and Vanzetti were involved in the robbery and murder. After the executions, there were wild protests around the world. The case was instrumental in reforming the Massachusetts judicial system for the ordering of new trials on the basis of new evidence.

The Scopes Trial (1925)

The State of Tennessee v. Scopes case came up in 1925 when John Scopes, a high school biology teacher, was found guilty of violating the Butler Act which prohibited the teaching of evolution. William Jennings Bryan argued for the prosecution while Clarence Darrow represented Scopes. The trial became somewhat of a theological debate as fundamentalists argued against the theory of evolution while modernists supported it. On July 21, 1925, Judge Raulston found Scopes guilty, ordering a fine of $100. In the appeal to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, Chief Justice Grafton Green stated that the Butler Law was constitutional but overturned the earlier decision because the jury should have set the fine, not Judge Raulston.

The Scopes Trial was famous because it highlighted the debate between science and religion. In those days, the trial drew a great amount of national attention. The fact that Justice Green called it a “bizarre case” meant that the debate should never had been conducted in a court of law in the first place.

The Scottsboro Boys Trial (1931)

On March 25, 1931, nine black youths were on a freight train running between Chattanooga and Memphis. The train also carried two white males and two white girls. After a fight between the two parties, the whites jumped off. Soon, a posse in Paint Rock, Alabama arrested the black boys on the train. They also found Ruby Bates and Victoria Price who reported that they were raped by the black boys. Initially, the case was heard in Scottsboro, Alabama in which all the boys were convicted of rape. Later, the case went to Alabama Supreme Court where 8 of the 9 boys were convicted and a 12 year old boy was sent to juvenile court. The case went to junior court where Judge Callahan found out that the rape story was fabricated so the charges against 4 of 9 boys were dropped. The oldest defendant Clarence Norris was sentenced to life imprisonment but he escaped parole in 1946. He was pardoned by Governor George Wallace in 1976. Haywood Patterson was sentenced to 75 years in prison but he escaped in 1948.

The Scottsboro Boys Trial was a landmark case because it dealt with the issue of racism and more importantly, the right to a fair trial. The Scottsboro boys were not offered the right to an attorney. There was no substantial evidence that they had raped the two white girls who themselves offered contradicting accounts of the incident.

Brown v. the Board of Education (1954)

Up until the decision by the Supreme Court decision in the case, racial segregation was still prevalent in many schools in the U.S. There were different public schools for black and white children. When Linda Brown, an African American, was denied entry into Sumner Elementary, a white school situated near her house, her father, Oliver L. Brown, filed a suit against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, Kansas. An 1879 Kansas law permitted separate elementary schools for black and white students. Thurgood Marshall argued the case in Supreme Court and Assistant Attorney General Paul Wilson argued for the State of Kansas. In the decision on May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Warren stated “in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” 

Brown v. the Board of Education was a landmark case because it outlawed racial segregation in public schools in the United States. The case is important in American history because it paved the way for social and civil rights movements in the country.

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

On June 2, 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon stole a few bottles of soda and beer as well as 5 dollars from Bay Harbor Pool Room, a beer joint and pool hall. A local resident said he saw Gideon taking a bottle of wine and his pocket was full of coins. Ira Strickland, Jr. was the owner of the joint. In the case, Gideon conducted his own defense remarkably well, arguing that he was innocent. The jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to a five year imprisonment. Serving his sentence in Florida State Prison, Gideon made an appeal to the Supreme Court and launched a suit against the Secretary to the Florida Department of Corrections, Louie L. Wainwright. Gideon charged that his Sixth Amendment rights had been violated because he had been denied counsel. On March 18, 1963, Justice Hugo Black delivered the Court’s opinion, overturning the previous verdict.

Gideon v. Wainwright was important because it safeguarded the provisions as outlined by the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which is the guarantee of counsel. Through the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, the right to counsel was made applicable to all the states.

Miranda v. Arizona (1966)

Ernesto Arturo Miranda was charged with kidnapping and raping an 18 year old girl. After interrogation at the police station, Miranda signed the confession and accepted the rape charge. At this time, no one told Miranda about his right to counsel or right to remain silent. Miranda’s court-appointed lawyer Alvin Moore argued the case, citing that the confession shouldn’t be included because it wasn’t wholly voluntary. The court found Miranda guilty, sentencing him to 20 to 30 years in prison for rape and kidnapping. In the appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court, the earlier decision was affirmed so the case was brought to the United States Supreme Court. Chief Justice Earl Warren accepted that the confession under the Fifth Amendment was not admissible because the person in custody should be informed that he/she can remain silent as well as get an attorney. Interrogation must cease until the accused gets an attorney. On June 13, 1966, the Court overturned the decision of the Arizona courts.

Miranda v. Arizona upheld the Fifth Amendment’s self-incrimination clause as well as the right to an attorney under the Sixth Amendment. After the case, law enforcement officers are required to give the Miranda Warning which states “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?”

Roe v. Wade (1970)

In 1970, Norma L. McCorvey, alias Jane Roe, filed a petition to abort her third pregnancy because she did not want to give birth to the baby. According to Texas law, legal abortions were only allowed under certain circumstances like rape, incest or health reasons. The case finally reached the Supreme Court where Roe was represented by Sarah Weddington and Dallas County D.A. Henry Wade was replaced by Texas Assistant Attorney General Robert C. Flowers. The case was drafted by Justice Harry Blackmun in the Supreme Court and it was re-argued for Chief Justice Warren Burger. The decision was made on January 1973 with majority vote in favor of McCorvey.

Roe v. Wade was considered a historic case because it upheld the Fourteenth Amendment’s right to privacy which included a woman’s abortion rights. The Supreme Court decision empowered women by giving them total control during the first trimester of the pregnancy. The ruling also had an effect on state laws for the second and third trimester. 

Texas v. Johnson (1989)

In 1989, Gregory Lee Johnson protested against the Reagan Administration by burning an American flag. For vandalizing a respected object, Johnson was sentenced to a prison term of one year and fined $2000. The Fifth Court of Appeals of Texas ruled against his appeal so he proceeded to The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals where the earlier decisions were overturned in view of the provision for freedom of speech under the First Amendment. The state of Texas then brought the case to the Supreme Court. The case was handled by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the associate judges were William J. Brennan, Jr., Marshall, Scalia, Blackmun, and Kennedy. In the decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Johnson’s act was protected by the First Amendment.

Texas v. Johnson was a landmark case because it protected an individual’s right to freedom of expression as outlined by the First Amendment. After the case, 48 out of 50 states had to invalidate laws which prohibit flag desecration.

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