March 17th 1777: Roger Taney born
On this day in 1777, Roger B. Taney was born in Maryland. Taney went on to become the fifth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1836. The Taney Court has gone down in infamy as the Court which issued the controversial ruling Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). This ruling declared that African-Americans did not count as United States citizens and thus could not sue in federal courts. The case originated when Dred Scott, a slave, claimed that because his master took him to a free state, he was thus a free man. The Court’s complete rejection of African-American rights evoked outrage from Northern anti-slavery forces, and support from Southern slaveowners. The decision, which Taney wrote, is thus often considered one of the causes of the American Civil War as it flared sectional tensions. Taney’s tenure ended with his death towards the end of the Civil War in 1864, but due to his role in the Dred Scott decision, he has gone down in history as one of the worst Chief Justices in history.
February 1st 1790: Supreme Court first meets
On this day in 1790 the highest court in the US, the Supreme Court, met for the first time at the Merchants’ Exchange Building in New York City. The Court is the only one specifically established in the Constitution (in Article III), and was implemented in 1789 with the Judiciary Act. The location of the Court moved a number of times, finally gaining its own building in 1935. The Court consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The first Chief Justice was John Jay. The original role of the Supreme Court was jurisdiction over “all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution” (Article III, Section II). The 1803 landmark case Marbury v. Madison formed the basis for the Supreme Court’s exercise of judicial review, when they can invalidate laws by declaring them ‘unconstitutional’.
August 6th 1965: Voting Rights Act signed
On this day in 1965, US President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. The Act is a landmark piece of civil rights legislation which prohibits discrimination in voting. Along with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act made up the core legislatative achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the US Supreme Court struck down the section of the Act which contained the formula for determining which states must have any changes to their voting laws approved by the federal government. Thus, the Act is essentially rendered impotent, and states with a history of racial discrimination no longer have to clear their voting laws with the federal government.
July 22nd 1937: Congress kills FDR’s ‘Court-packing’ plan
On this day in 1937, the United States Senate voted down President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan to add more justices to the Supreme Court. The Court, under Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, had repeatedly struck down key elements of the President’s ‘New Deal’ programme to end the Great Depression. FDR threatened to increase the number of justices on the Court by adding 6 associate justices to assist the elder justices. Thus, the President would have been able to ‘pack’ the Court with his supporters and get his legislation upheld. Congress struck down these provisions of the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill. However, the Court responded to the President’s threat and did begin to vote more favourably on New Deal legislation.
June 13th 1971: Pentagon Papers first published
On this day in 1971, the New York Times began publication of the Pentagon Papers, a series of Defense Department documents which revealed secrets about US involvement in Vietnam. They contained a history of America’s involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, leaked the documents to the New York Times. President Nixon challenged the newspaper’s right to publish the documents, but the Supreme Court ruled in New York Times v. United States that the papers could be published. The revelations about the secret campaigns of the Johnson administration with its bombing of Cambodia and Laos outraged the public. The release of the papers added to a growing anti-war movement within the United States.
May 17th 1954: Brown v. Board of Education
On this day in 1954, the US Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The decision declared segregation on grounds of race in schools unconstitutional. The ruling overturned the 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson which allowed segregation under the doctrine ‘separate but equal’. The case had been bought by African-American parents, including Oliver L. Brown, against Topeka’s educational segregation. It was argued before the Court by the chief legal counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP): Thurgood Marshall, who became the first African-American Supreme Court justice in 1967. The Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, declared that segregation violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The landmark decision is considered the start of the Civil Rights Movement which led to racial integration and full legal rights for African-Americans.
“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”
- Warren’s opinion for the Court
January 22nd 1973: Roe v. Wade
On this day in 1973, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that women have the right to an abortion, thus legalising abortion in the US. The Court ruled 7-2 that a right to privacy under the 14th Amendment covers a woman’s right to an abortion. The decision is still controversial today, and many still debate whether abortion should be allowed. The same day as Roe v. Wade was decided, the former President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson died.
September 24th 1789: Judiciary Act passed
On this day in 1789, the United States Congress passed the Judiciary Act which established the federal judiciary. The act created the “supreme court” specified by the Constitution and set out its composition and procedures.
February 24th 1803: Marbury v. Madison
On this day in 1803 in the case Marbury v. Madison the US Supreme Court established the principle of judicial review. The case arose when Secretary of State James Madison failed to deliver documents to Justice of the Peace for DC William Marbury which officially granted his title. The Court decided that the section of the 1789 Judiciary Act allowing Marbury to bring his claim to the Court was itself unconstitutional. On February 24th the Court ruled unanimously to this effect. The decision gave the Supreme Court the power to interpret the constitution and strike down laws as ‘unconstitutional’. Since then, the Court have made many high-profile rulings branding things unconstitutional. For example: school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954); school prayer in Engel v. Vitale (1962); teaching creationism in science lessons in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) and the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor (2013).
December 12th 2000: Bush v. Gore
August 4th 2010: Prop 8 overturned
On this day in 2010, California’s Proposition 8 which banned same-sex marriage was overturned in the District Court decision Perry v. Schwarzenegger. The ballot initiative was passed by the California electorate in 2008 (52% yes, 48% no) after a heavily divisive campaign in which over $80 million was raised. Walker ruled in 2010 that the ban violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The case reached the Supreme Court who, in the 2013 case Hollingsworth v. Perry, ruled that the supporters of Prop 8 did not have the legal standing to do so. Thus the 2010 ruling was left intact by the Supreme Court, and equal marriage could take place in California.
June 26th 2003: Lawrence v. Texas
On this day in 2003, 10 years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that anti-sodomy laws are unconstitutional, thus making consensual homosexual activity legal in the United States. This ruling overturned the Court’s previous decision in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), which upheld Georgia’s anti-sodomy law. The decision split the Court 6-3, with justices Kennedy, Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer and O’Connor in the majority and justices Scalia, Thomas and Rehnquist (the Chief Justice) dissenting. Today, 10 years after this landmark decision, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on two cases involving gay marriage.
June 11th 1963: The Stand in the Schoolhouse Door
On this day in 1963, segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace stood at the door of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama to prevent two black students (Vivian Malone and James Hood) from attending. Around the United States, following the Supreme Court declaring school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), schools were being desegregated. Wallace became well known nationwide for his opposition to desegregation, famously saying in his inaugural speech “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. As Wallace stood in the door, he was confronted by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach who, when Wallace refused to move, called President John F. Kennedy who federalised the Alabama National Guard. General Henry Graham of the National Guard then asked him to step aside on the President’s orders, which Wallace reluctantly did, thus allowing Malone and Hood to register.
March 8th 1841: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. born
On this day in 1841, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He went on to fight in the American Civil War. Holmes was appointed to the Supreme Court by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 and served for 30 years during which time he became well known for his philosophy of judicial restraint and his eloquent opinions. He retired aged 90, and died aged 93 in 1935. Holmes is considered one of the best justices in American history and is still widely cited today.