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6) Miranda v Arizona

Background: Several defendants were questioned while they were in custody and had been cut off from the outside world during their questioning. None of the defendants were informed of their rights before the interrogation.

The court ruled that the current interrogation practices were at odds with the constitutional principle that individuals shouldn’t be compelled to incriminate themselves. Constitutional principles have always been ‘as broad as the mischief against which they seek to guard.’ The court ruled that the 5th amendment protection against self-incrimination extended outside of the courtroom into the interrogation room.

Why it matters: Not only is this a landmark case, but the principle of the breadth of constitutional rights is worth understanding. The court essentially cross-applied a constitutional idea to an area that hadn’t been protected before.

7) Lemon v Kurtzman

Background: Rhode Island and Pennsylvania provided aid to church-related schools through reimbursement for teachers’ salaries, textbooks, and instructional materials in secular subjects. Citizens of each state brought suit, claiming that this violated the 1st amendment clause that forbade laws that effect the Establishment of Religion.

The court ruled that there are three main evils that the establishment clause was intended to avoid: sponsorship of religion, financial support of religious institutions, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity. There is a three pronged test for the establishment clause:

  1. The statute must have a secular legislative purpose.
  2. Its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.
  3. The statute must not foster excessive government entanglement with religion.

Why it matters: The court’s dealings with the religion aspect of the 1st Amendment have been extensive, to say the least. This case lays the foundation for what the establishment clause means in the eyes of the judicial branch.

8) Employment Division v Smith

Background: Two drug rehabilitation officers were fired for using peyote as part of their Native American Church sacraments. They were both denied unemployment compensation because they had violated Oregon law.

The Court ruled that the ‘exercise of religion’ involves a dichotomy between beliefs and the performance of religious acts. The only decisions that have upheld the Free Exercise clause over neutral and generally applicable laws are ones that have included a companion right, such as freedom of speech or the press.

This means that neutral and generally applicable laws are generally upheld even when they substantially burden the free exercise of religion, unless the plaintiff can show that some other companion right is being violated.

Why it matters: This case functionally made the free exercise clause useless. There’s a case to be made for overturning Smith, and it’s certainly one of the more controversial cases the court has decided in recent years.

9) New York Times Co v United States

Background: The US government applied for injunction to prevent the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the contents of a classified study about Viet-Nam. The court ruled that there is a heavy burden of presumption against the constitutional validity of the government restriction of publication.

This case is an interesting read because there are 6 concurring opinions and 3 dissents, each presenting a slightly different opinion. They are worth reading from the original source, but here’s a quick summary of what each justice said.

CONCUR: Justice Black, Justice Douglas: the bill of rights is intended to curtail and restrict the general powers of the federal government. The New York Times and Washington Post should be praised for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers foresaw.

CONCUR: Justice Douglas, Justice Black: There is no room for governmental restraint on the press. The First Amendment was adopted to prevent the common law punishment of seditious libel and to protect the right to publish material embarrassing to the powers that be.

CONCUR: Justice Brennan: the First Amendment is an absolute bar against judicial restraint. Every restraint and delay – even those to give the court an opportunity to examine the issue more thoroughly – has violated the First Amendment.

CONCUR: Justice Stewart, Justice White: the only effective restraint on executive power is an informed and enlightened citizenry. The court has no standing in this case.

CONCUR: Justice White, Justice Stewart: there are circumstances where an injunction would be legitimate. However, in this case criminal sanctions would be the appropriate manner of redress.

CONCUR: Justice Marshall: The issue here is whether the court or the congress has the right to make law. The President has the power to conduct foreign affairs and impose censorship to protect his ability to do so. The court does not have the authority to provide the requested relief, Congress must address the issue with a criminal statute.

DISSENT: Chief Justice Burger: the speed of this procedure has created a parody of the judicial function.

DISSENT: Justice Harlan, Chief Justice Burger, Justice Blackmun: the court has been irresponsibly feverish in these cases. Pending further hearings, the restrictions ought to continue as the status quo.

DISSENT: Justice Blackmaun: there must be an orderly examination of the evidence before the court changes the status quo. 

Why it matters: The concurring and dissenting opinions paint a picture of exactly how the court system functions under pressure. The dissenting opinions also make powerful arguments against attempts to speed up the court system.

10) Pierce v Society of Sisters / Wisconsin v Yoder

(I know, I know… this is two. But trust me, they go together)


Pierce: Oregon enacted the Compulsory Education Act, which required all children between 8 and 16 to attend public school. This functionally outlawed private schools and left many teachers unemployed. The court ruled that this was an unreasonable interference with the liberty of parents to direct the education of their children. It also recognized that children are not creatures of the state – that parents have the primary right and responsibility to prepare the children to be productive members of society.

Wisconsin: Wisconsin passed a law that mandated education through the end of High School. Amish parents opposed secular education past 8th grade. In this case, the court ruled that the parents of these children had a right to free exercise of religion that outweighed the interest of the state in education their children. This case also pointed to a potential secondary right of parents to guide and direct their children.

Why it matters: These are the two prime examples of the court extrapolating rights from the bill of rights that most people generally view as good. These are non-controversial examples of the court reading new rights into the constitution. Specifically, parental rights.

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