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Supreme Court Decisions That Affect Our Lives
A photo of the Supreme Court that was taken many years ago is on the cover of the book that I’m reviewing today, and along with it is the subtitle “The 37 Supreme Court Cases That Most Directly Affect Your Life”. That should put to rest any misconceptions you might have when you read the title of the book – “The Supremes’ Greatest Hits”.
The Supreme Court
Though the Supreme Court hears an average of 80 cases a year, Michael G. Trachtman has chosen just 37 to illustrate how we’re affected by their decisions, and I have chosen a much smaller number to jog your memory about some of them. In the process, I hope you will be enticed into reading the book.
To give you the flavor of how each case is presented, I’ll quote extensively from just one case – Washington v Glucksberg – or The Right to Die 1997:
Seeking a Resolution
“Suppose a close friend becomes terminally ill, all quality of life has evaporated, and he is suffering. Moreover, his medical bills will dissipate his assets, and he is desperately worried about his family’s financial future. He tells you he would prefer to die – peacefully, without pain, now. He pleads with you, as his closest friend, to help him carry out his wishes. All you need to do is fill an old painkiller prescription he has, give him the bottle, and he will do the rest. May you do it? May you arrange for a doctor or nurse to help him, and even if you could would they be permitted to do anything?
A Washington State Statute Challenged
“As of this writing, forty-nine states prohibit assisted suicide, and in recent years doctors, terminally ill patients, and “death with dignity” organizations have challenged the constitutionality of these laws in court. One such challenge was mounted in the mid-1990s by Dr. Harold Glucksberg, along with other physicians, patients, and a nonprofit advocacy group. It involved a Washington state statute that makes “promoting a suicide” a felony. Glucksberg sought the right to honor the wishes of terminal patients who asked for his assistance. The case, Washington v Glucksberg, made its way to the Supreme Court in 1997.
The Limits of Liberty
“Glucksberg, like most litigants who have challenged assisted-suicide bans, based his case on the historic Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits a state from depriving person of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Surely, Glucksberg contended, this constitutional right of liberty must include the right of a competent adult to choose to die, and to seek assistance in implementing that decision. As the saying goes, it’s a free country.
“Some lower courts had agreed with this argument in other cases, but the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, unanimously disagreed. The Court found that the Due Process Clause does not prevent government from regulating all conceivable liberties, but only certain fundamental liberties rooted in the nation’s history and traditions. The Court reviewed Anglo-American law since the 1400s, and found that England, and then the colonies, had prohibited assisted suicides for hundreds of years. Therefore, the Court ruled, there was no reason to believe that the framers of the Constitution intended to contravene this tradition and establish a “right to die.” Consequently, said the Court, it was not unconstitutional for a state to criminalize assisted suicide.
Death with Dignity
“Keep in mind, however, that while Washington v Glucksberg stands for the proposition that states may lawfully prohibit assisted suicides within their borders, states may, conversely, allow assisted suicides if they wish. So far, Oregon is the only state to have done so, enacting the Death with Dignity Act, which became effective in 1997. The law permits physicians, in well-defined circumstances, to provide a lethal dosage of pills to terminally ill patients who seek to end their own suffering. It is then up to the patient to take the pills, or not. The Bush administration challenged the constitutionality of the Death with Dignity Act and, in January 2006, the Supreme Court, while not endorsing the law, refused to overturn it, in a 6-3 vote. Several other states were awaiting the outcome of this ruling, and will now likely introduce similar legislation.
Other Cases Included in the Same Format:
Marbury v. Madison
This case established the right of the Supreme Court to void any law passed by Congress. It also gave single citizens “armed with a creative lawyer, to invoke the power of the judiciary to measure laws and decisions against constitutional standards.
Chief Justice Roger Taney
Dred Scott v. Sandford - The Dred Scott Case (1857) – the Court under Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that slaves and free blacks were not citizens worthy of constitutional protection. “The upshot was that slaves were to remain slaves, and the federal government had been stripped of the power to do much about it”. As a result of the decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were held a year after during which Lincoln is quoted as saying “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free”.
In 1868, the 14th Amendment, provided that slaves were fully entitled to citizenship and constitutional protections.
Religion in Public Schools
Engel vs. Vitale - The issue was whether prayer “established” religion, and the court ruled that the practice was wholly inconsistent with the Establishment Clause.
William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow
Epperson v. Arkansas - The Scopes “Monkey Trial” – In 1925, Tennessee had passed the Butler Act which forbade the teaching of any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible. John Scopes, a biology teacher invited prosecution, as he had taught evolution, and in a famous trial with Darrow and Bryan involved, Scopes was convicted and the judge levied a fine of $100. The case went to the Tennessee Supreme Court which eventually reversed the finding on the basis that a jury rather than a judge should have decided upon a fine.
The Right to be Represented by Counsel
Gideon v. Wainwright - The Right to be Represented By counsel – Clarence Gideon had to defend himself in court as he was impecunious, and when he lost as he was unprepared to represent himself, he petitioned the Supreme Court from his jail cell and was successful. Now everyone has the right to be represented by counsel.
Miranda v. Arizona - The Right to Remain Silent and the Privilege Against Self-Incrimination (1966) – As a result of this case, “everyone accused of a crime had the right and the power to require that the government prove its accusations through real, substantive evidence, and every individual is provided with safeguards, like a lawyer and an unbiased court, to fend off the ability of those in power.”
The Boy Scouts of America v. Dale - The Right of “Expressive Association” – The First Amendment guarantees people freedom to associate with whomever they please, but the Court pointed out that they are also free not to associate among certain kinds of groups. Such groups are called “Expressive Association”. James Dale had applied to be a scoutmaster, but after he acknowledged that he was gay, the Scouts revoked his membership. The Court ultimately ruled that the Scouts would not be compelled to accept Dale using the First Amendment as their reason.
Burlington Industries v. Ellert - Expanded the Right of Employees to Sue Their Employers – 1998 – Case arose because Ellerth claimed sexual harassment from her supervisor after she quit. Burlington felt they had an airtight case, as they hadn’t known that it was happening. The Court ruled in favor of Ellerth, however, because of “vicarious liability” – they should have known.
Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer. - In 1952, during the Korean War, the United Steel Workers gave notice of a nationwide steel strike, and President Truman – believing that it would hurt the war effort – announced on the radio that as President he was seizing the steel mills from their owners. When the case got to the Supreme Court, attorneys for President Truman argued that the President had that right in times of national emergency. The court disagreed by a vote of 6-2 on the basis that the matter should have been handled by Congress which in prior cases had expressly forbidden unilateral seizures of property.
Texas v. Johnson - The Flag-Burning Case – The First Amendment protects “freedom of speech”, but people “often communicate and express themselves in non-verbal ways". When Gregory Lee Johnson participated in a demonstration during the 1984 Republican National Convention by unfurling an American flag, dousing it with kerosene and setting it on fire, many people were offended, and he was arrested under a Texas statute prohibiting desecration of the flag. By a bare 5-4 majority, the Supreme Court agreed with Johnson and ruled that the Texas statue was unconstitutional. In writing the opinion, Justice Brennan wrote “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
No Longer "Separate but Equal"
Brown v. Board of Education - In 1896 in a case known as Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court had openly endorsed the concept of separate but equal” regarding education for blacks. By the 1950’s, however, the NAACP’s legal team argued that segregated schools were inherently unequal and could not be made equal. Their position was that forcing blacks to attend such schools violated the constitutional guaranty of equal protection under law. In a unanimous opinion, Chief Justice Warren wrote that segregation of white and colored children in public school has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.” He went on to write that the detriment was even “greater when it has the sanction of law, for the policy of segregating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro Group. “He plainly stated that the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place in American education – and, by implication, anywhere else in America.
Other Court Rulings in the book:
- The Right to Bear Arms
- Bush v. Gore
- Griswald v. Connecticutt on the subject of privacy
- Campaign Financing Cases
- Elimination of Monopolies and Price Fixing
- The Watergate Scandal
- Habeus Corpus as Regards Guantanamo Detainees
- The Pentagon Papers
- Rulings on Discrimination and Diversity
- The Unwritten Right of Privacy
- Roe v. Wade.
Rulings by the Supreme Court help keep in place the system of checks and balances envisioned by those who wrote our constitution. Yes, there have been errors in some of the decisions, and too many years pass before corrections are made, but as Trachtman has written, “our system works better than the constitution framers could have hoped.”
Get the book and read it today.