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1) Ashwander v Tennessee Valley Authority

Background: This case outlines the 7 rules of Judicial Restraint. Basically, it outlines the circumstances in which the court will actually hear a case.

1) The court can only decide on issues that are immediate and pressing. There must be an actually issue worth litigating for the court to issue an opinion.

2) The court cannot determine the constitutional issue prematurely. In other words, there has to be a real conflict between the rights of different parties for the court to hear the case. The Court won’t hear cases that are not yet ripe for review.

3) The court will only rule on the issue at hand, and will tailor its precedent to the issue at hand. The scope of their ruling cannot be extended past what is necessary for the question at hand. For example, the court will not make an absolute rule about a constitutional issue when they can strike down a particular statutory clause and have the same end result. The point of this restraint is to limit broad constitutional rules and focus on specific situations whenever possible.

4) The court will always decide a statutory question before a constitutional one. If a case has issues that deal with the interpretation of a law and a constitutional principle, the court will decide only on the statutory issue.

5) The plaintiff must have standing. People who cannot show that they’ve been injured by a statute cannot make a constitutional claim. This is very similar to the first rule. If someone hasn’t been harmed by a law, their case will only needlessly clog the court system.

6) The court won’t hear cases from a plaintiff who has benefited from the statute. In other words, the court won’t help hypocrites. This is similar to the 5th rule.

7) Before determining the constitutionality of a law in question, the court will determine if a law can be fairly constructed in a way that does not violate the constitution. The court will give laws the benefit of the doubt for as long as they reasonably can.

Why it matters: This case is important because it explains the way the court choses the cases that it hears and the procedural way that cases are decided. These rules are not binding precedent, and the court doesn’t always follow them well, but they’re a good place to start when trying to understand the Supreme Court process.

2) Poe v Ullman

Background: Two married couples and one physician sued the state of Connecticut over a law that forbade the use of contraceptives. The court had previously ruled that this law would apply to married couples, and even went so far to say that there was no exception for the health of the mother. However, the state prosecutor was not prosecuting any of the parties involved prior to the appeal. In fact, in the 75 years that this law had been on the books, there had only ever been one prosecution.

The court ruled that this law was not currently being enforced (obviously) and so there was no real controversy that could be litigated. The traditional ways of carrying out – or not carrying out – state law is more relevant than the actual ‘dead words of the written text.’ The judicial process works best when there is a real issue. ‘This court cannot be umpire to debates concerning harmless, empty shadows.’

Why it matters: This is the prime example of a case where the 7 rules of Judicial Self Restraint that were laid out in Ashwander. It’s also the precursor to Griswold v Connecticut, which has a legacy in its own right. In Griswold, Planned Parenthood got a friendly prosecutor to bring a case against them under the unenforced Connecticut Law and eventually got the ruling that they wanted. Understanding the issue of Ripeness and the way that advocacy groups have exploited loopholes is fundamental to understanding the court system.

3) United States v Lopez

Background: A student violated the Gun Free School Zones Act, which prohibited carrying a firearm within 1000 feet of a school. The government attempted to justify the GFSZA under the Commerce Clause, states that the United States Congress shall have power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”

The court ruled that there are three distinct areas that congress can regulate through the commerce clause. First, channels of interstate commerce. This includes things like interstate highways and waterways that cross several states. Second, persons or items in the process of interstate commerce. This includes vehicles used to travel between states, and other related systems. Third, those things that have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. The court has since upheld regulation of economic activities that substantially effect interstate commerce. However, the court ruled that the GFSZA does not fall within any of the specified aspects of the Commerce Clause.

Why it matters: The three prongs of the commerce clause have routinely been tested in the court of judicial proceedings. This is fundamental to much litigation that has happened since the decision was handed down in Lopez.

4) Mapp v Ohio

Background: Miss Mapp was convicted of possessing obscene literature (which was prohibited under Ohio law) after an unlawful and unwarranted search of her house. Mapp argued that her prosecution was void because of the evidence against her had been obtained illegally.

The court ruled that the 4th Amendment forbade unlawful searches even by the state governments. Before this case, the issue of whether or not the 4th Amendment exclusionary rule applied to the states was unclear. However, this case pioneered the Incorporation Doctrine. This means that the state courts are under the same federal standards as the federal courts are.

Why it matters: This case is one of the primary cases that deals with the Incorporation Doctrine. This is the idea that the bill of rights applies to the states through the 14th Amendment. It also blurs the lines between state courts and federal courts, which, in turn, confuses the actual size of the federal court system.

5) Gideon v Wainwright

Background: Gideon was convicted of breaking and entering. However, the court was unable to appoint an attorney for him because Florida state law only allowed the appointment of counsel in capital offense cases.

The court rules that there is a fundamental right to counsel in state courts. Prosecutors are seen as essential to protection the public interest, so it’s clear that defendants charged with crimes also have an essential right to an attorney. Therefore, The Right to Counsel is fundamental and necessary to Due Process of law.

Why it matters: This case also lays out the rights of individuals in the court system under the Incorporation Doctrine. It’s important for the same reasons that Mapp v Ohio is.

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