4 Landmark Court Cases That Changed America

The American judicial system is set up so that major court cases make a significant impact on the entire country. Many of the country’s most important cases have impacted laws that influence us today. Any student pursuing a criminal justice degree should understand the significance of these four landmark court cases as well as their ongoing implications.

1. Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1857

This decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court determined that black slaves could not be American citizens and therefore could not sue an American in federal court. The landmark decision also deemed the federal government unable to regulate slavery in territories established after the U.S. was created.

Dred Scott was a black slave who had been taken by his owners to a free territory. He attempted to sue them for his freedom, but was unable to do so as the result of the 7-2 decision. Scott used legal precedent to make his argument, drawing from Somerset v. Stewart and Rachel v. Walker among other cases; however, the ruling maintained that Scott must remain a slave and could not sue for his freedom. The court cited the Fifth Amendment and claimed that the government could not deprive a slaveholder of his property.

While Chief Justice Taney, who handed down the ruling, hoped this would end the slavery discussion, it actually resulted in more than further discussion. In fact, this landmark case was one of the catalysts for the Civil War.

2. United States v. Nixon, 1974

In this case, all eight Supreme Court justices ruled against President Richard Nixon, severely limiting the power of a president as part of the fall-out from the infamous Watergate scandal.

The Watergate scandal began with the 1972 break-in of the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. This happened to occur during Nixon’s presidential campaign against Senator McGovern. Once Nixon won, he was forced to investigate the crime and turn over tapes and papers with damaging evidence about the men indicted and President Nixon. Nixon turned over edited transcripts and seemed to have the idea that the U.S. President was above any court process except for impeachment. Each justice believed that the tapes would incriminate President Nixon and rejected his claim that he was immune from judicial process.

This court case has a lasting impact. Just two weeks after the court passed down the decision, President Nixon resigned. Today, American presidents know that they are not above the country’s laws and they may answer to the Supreme Court for their crimes.

3. Miranda v. Arizona, 1966

The United States Supreme Court heard this case in 1966 regarding interrogation tactics used by the police. The decision passed with 5-4. The justices referred to the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, specifically the clauses regarding self-incrimination and the right to an attorney.

As a result of this landmark decision, statements made by a defendant to police officers are only admissible at a trial if the defendant was informed of their rights, known today as Miranda Rights. This includes the right to consult with an attorney before and during questioning and protection against self-incrimination. Not only must the defendant understand the rights but also waive them voluntarily. Miranda Rights are now a regular component of official police procedure.

4. Brown v. Board of Education, 1954

This landmark case is one of the biggest landmarks for ending racial division within the United States because it ruled that establishing public schools to separate black and white students was not constitutional. In effect, it overturned the Supreme Court’s 1896 decision regarding Plessy v. Ferguson. The decision was unanimous with all nine justices claiming that separate facilities could not be considered equal under the law.

In this case, the plaintiffs claimed that the educational facilities for black students were not “separate but equal” to those for white students. The Supreme Court claimed that educational segregation violated the constitutional rights of black students under the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment. This case was significant in that it was a victory for the civil rights movement and helped pave the way for black Americans to fight for their rights.

Each of these landmark cases has a well-deserved place in U.S. history. Without each of these landmark cases, much of the progress the country has made would be non-existent. We see the lasting impacts of each of these cases every day.

Alvernia University offers an online B.A. in Criminal Justice for students to develop their knowledge of the law. Graduates can pursue employment opportunities in law enforcement, courts, corrections and more. The program is fully online, allowing students to study when and where they have the time.

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