5 court cases that changed the nation

5 court cases that changed the nation


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Is there a law you really disagree with? Before you break it (and endure the ensuing consequences), think about this: U.S. laws are constantly evolving, and those of 1950 can seem erratically different than those of 2014. Since the birth of the United States, lawyers, judges and lawmakers throughout the nation have analyzed and examined state and federal laws to determine their constitutionality — and some of those decisions have made some big waves.

Miranda v. Arizona (1966)

If you’ve ever wondered where your “right to remain silent” comes from, you can thank Ernesto Miranda, whose confession to a crime came before police ever informed him that he had the right to not incriminate himself. In the subsequent case, the Supreme Court ruled that Miranda’s confession was inadmissible in court, and “Miranda rights” became an important component of all U.S. police arrests.

5 court cases that changed the nation
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United States v. Nixon (1974)The president of the United States may get some special treatment (OK, a lot of special treatment), but he is not above the law — a fact that was reinforced by the monumental United States v. Nixon court case in 1974. After refusing to relinquish taped conversations surrounding the Watergate scandal after a subpoenaed order, the Supreme Court decided that Nixon had no special rights to retain the recordings and other subpoenaed documents. This decision sent a clear message that the president was as subject to the laws of the land as, well, everyone else. According to cbsnews.com, the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against President Bill Clinton was a direct result of the U.S. v. Nixon decision.

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

Separate is not equal, was the general outcome of the monumental Brown v. Board of Education case of 19854. This decision came long after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 that sanctioned the segregation of whites and African-Americans. Brought to the Supreme Court by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the trial changed the country when the court reversed the Plessy decision, deciding that separate could in no way mean equal. Although the case succeeded in legally desegregating schools, efforts at racial integration have continued. According to the Council of State Governments, the high school graduation rate for black males is still substantially lower than that of white males.

5 court cases that changed the nation
Photo: Shutterstock

Roe v. Wade (1973)In one of the most controversial court cases in history, Norma McCorvey, identified at the time as “Jane Roe,” sued Henry Wade, Dallas County District Attorney, over a Texas law that made it a felony offense for a woman to have an abortion. The Supreme Court overruled the law, saying that states could only restrict a woman’s right to choose in the later stages of pregnancy. Roe v. Wade, however, was neither the beginning nor the end of the abortion debate. Since the 1973 ruling, the Supreme Court as well as numerous state courts have continued to hear and decide cases regarding abortion rights in the United States. According to the Washington Post, more abortion restrictions were enacted in the three years spanning 2011 to 2013 than were in the entire decade prior.

Texas v. Johnson (1989)

Thanks to Texas v. Johnson, bonfires aren’t limited to dried twigs and marshmallows. After his 1984 arrest and conviction for burning a U.S. flag, Gregory Lee Johnson appealed the conviction (and subsequent prison sentence and fine) and landed in the Supreme Court. Although flag desecration was (and remains) unpopular in the United States, the Court found that Johnson’s actions were protected under the First Amendment. Since the decision, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted on six occasions on a Constitutional Amendment that would prohibit flag desecration. The Amendment has not passed.

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