Over the years, many courtroom cases have captured the imagination of the American people. They include the murder trials of O.J. Simpson, Ted Bundy and former police officer Derek Chauvin.
But for students in an undergraduate criminal justice degree program, the more important legal actions involve landmark cases that established foundational laws upon which the nation built its judicial system. While the list of important cases is a long one, the following five are among the most important.
Marbury vs. Madison (1803)
The American Bar Association lists this as the first landmark case in U.S. history, just 14 years after Congress ratified the U.S. Constitution. The case involved President Thomas Jefferson’s decision not to grant appointments made by his predecessor, John Adams.
Importance: The case, decided in an opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court, established the principle of judicial review, which gives federal courts the power to deem legislative and executive acts unconstitutional. The court ruled that Jefferson’s actions were unconstitutional and set up the Supreme Court as the final arbitrator on constitutional interpretation.
Dred Scott vs. Sandford (1857)
Before the Civil War, a case came before the Supreme Court that questioned whether Congress had the right to abolish slavery in U.S. territories and whether Black people had the right to sue in federal court. The court ruled “no” in both cases, essentially legally making Black people property without civil rights and restricting Congress’ power to abolish slavery in territories.
Importance: Many scholars consider this the worst decision ever made by the Supreme Court. It pushed the country – already at a tipping point – that much closer to Civil War.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
A public school in Topeka, Kansas, refused to enroll a Black girl into an elementary school, instead making her ride the bus to an all-Black school further away. The resulting lawsuit, which reached the Supreme Court, asked whether segregated schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
Importance: The court ruled that segregated schools did violate the 14th Amendment, writing that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” This started the desegregation of public schools, although the court’s verdict also gave schools no ideas on how to accomplish this action, only asking them to do it with “all deliberate speed.”
Miranda vs. Arizona (1966)
In 1963, Phoenix police arrested Ernesto Miranda on charges of kidnapping and raping an 18-year-old. After interrogation, Miranda signed a confession to the crime. A jury eventually found him guilty, sentencing him to up to 30 years in prison. His attorney appealed the decision, saying police never told Miranda he had the right to have an attorney present during the police interview.
Importance: The Supreme Court overturned Miranda’s conviction, establishing that police must inform people they arrest of their constitutional rights. This led to the Miranda Warning. The warning includes language that informs people of their right to remain silent, that anything they say can and will be held against them, that they have the right to consult an attorney before speaking to police and if they cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for them.
While his arrest and confession established an important law, Miranda himself lived only ten more years. The state of Arizona tried him a second time, and a jury found him guilty in 1967, even without his confession. After his release on parole in 1972, Miranda took to selling signed Miranda cards. Police arrested him on various charges, including driving offenses and gun possession violations. An unknown person stabbed and killed Miranda in a bar fight in downtown Phoenix on Jan. 31, 1976.
Roe vs. Wade (1973)
In 1970, a Texas woman named Norma McCorvey – filing under the name Jane Roe – sued for the right to have an abortion in Texas, which at the time banned abortion. The case, which reached the Supreme Court in 1973, asked whether the Constitution prohibits laws that restrict or deny a woman’s access to abortion. Wade was Henry Wade, McCorvey’s local district attorney in Texas.
Importance: The court ruled that the Texas law violated Roe’s constitutional rights to privacy. The court ruled that states could only restrict access to abortions to protect the life of the woman or the fetus late in pregnancy. It’s a ruling that is still being challenged to this day.
These are five of the many landmark U.S. legal cases that criminal justice majors will learn about during their studies. They provide a great deal of information about how certain legal precedents came to be, and why some still get challenged in court.