Key Supreme Court Cases
Key Supreme Court Cases[1]

Checks and Balances

The Founding Fathers established a system of checks and balances to insure that one branch of government did not become more powerful than the other two branches. The U.S. Constitution gives the Judicial Branch the role of interpreting the laws. In 1803, the power of the Judicial Branch was more clearly defined with the landmark supreme court case Marbury v. Madison. This court case and the others listed have had a significant impact on the United States of America.

# 01 of 07
James Madison, America's Third President. He was named in the key Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison. Marbury v. Madison was a historic case that established the precedent of judicial review. The ruling written by Chief Justice John Marshall cemented the authority of the Judicial Branch to declare a law unconstitutional and firmly established the checks and balances the founding fathers had intended.

Marbury v Madison is considered by many to be not just a landmark case for the Supreme Court, but rather the landmark case. The Court's decision was delivered in 1803 and continues to be invoked when cases involve the question of judicial review. It also marked the beginning of the Supreme Court's rise in power to a position equal to that of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government. In short, it was the first time the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress unconstitutional.

Background of Marbury v. Madison


In the weeks after the Federalist president John Adams lost his bid for reelection to Democratic-Republican candidate Thomas Jefferson in 1800, the Federalist Congress increased the number of circuit courts. Adams placed Federalist judges in these new positions. However, several of these 'Midnight' appointments were not delivered before Jefferson took office, and Jefferson promptly stopped their delivery as President. William Marbury was one of the justices who was expecting an appointment that had been withheld. Marbury filed a petition with the Supreme Court, asking it to issue a writ of mandamus that would require Secretary of State James Madison to deliver the appointments. The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, denied the request, citing part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 as unconstitutional.

Marshall's Decision

On the surface, Marbury v. Madison was not a particularly important case, involving the appointment of one Federalist judge among many recently commissioned. But Chief Justice Marshall (who had served as Secretary of State under Adams and was not necessarily a supporter of Jefferson) saw the case as an opportunity to assert the power of the judicial branch.

If he could show that a congressional act was unconstitutional, he could position the Court as the supreme interpreter of the Constitution. And that's just what he did.

The Court's decision actually declared that Marbury had a right to his appointment and that Jefferson had violated the law by ordering secretary Madison to withhold Marbury's commission. But there was another question to answer: Whether or not the Court had the right to issue a writ of mandamus to secretary Madison. The Judiciary Act of 1789 presumably granted the Court the power to issue a writ, but Marshall argued that the Act, in this case, was unconstitutional. He declared that under Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, the Court did not have "original jurisdiction" in this case, and therefore the Court did not have the power to issue a writ of mandamus.

Significance of Marbury v. Madison

This historic court case established the concept of Judicial Review, the ability of the Judiciary Branch to declare a law unconstitutional. This case brought the judicial branch of the government on a more even power basis with the legislative and executive branches. The Founding Fathers expected the branches of government to act as checks and balances on one another.

The historic court case Marbury v. Madison accomplished this end, thereby setting the precedent for numerous historic decisions in the future.

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McCulloch v. Maryland - 1819

John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He was the Chief Justice presiding over the key McCulloch v. Maryland case.

In McCulloch v. Maryland, the Supreme Court allowed for implied powers of the federal government according to the "necessary and proper" clause of the Constitution. This case allowed the powers of the federal government to expand and evolve beyond that specifically written in the Constitution.

# 03 of 07
Gibbons v. Ogden - 1824

Aaron Ogden (1756-1839), governor of New Jersey from 1812-1813, 1833. Gibbons v. Ogden established the supremacy of the federal government over state's rights. The case gave the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce.

# 04 of 07
Scott v. Sanford (Dred Scott Decision) - 1857
Dred Scott (1795 - 1858)

Scott v. Stanford had major implications about the condition of slavery. The court case struck down the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act and ruled that just because a slave was living in a "free" state, they were still slaves. The ruling increased tensions between the North and South in the build up to the Civil War.

# 05 of 07
Plessy v. Ferguson - 1896

African American students at a segregated school following the supreme court case Plessy v Ferguson established Separate But Equal, 1896. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images Plessy v. Ferguson was a Supreme Court decision that upheld the separate but equal doctrine. This ruling interpreted the thirteenth amendment to mean that separate facilities were allowed for different races. This case was a cornerstone of segregation in the South.

# 06 of 07
Brown v. Board of Education - 1954

Topeka, Kansas. The Monroe School historic site of Brown v Board of Education, what is considered the start of the Civil rights movement in the United States.

Brown v. Board of Education overturned the separate but equal doctrine which had been given legal standing with Plessy v. Ferguson. This landmark case was a significant step in the Civil Rights movement. In fact, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to force desegregation of a school in Little Rock, Arkansas based on this decision.

# 07 of 07
Korematsu v. United States - 1946

Korematsu v. United States upheld the conviction of Frank Korematsu for defying an order to be interned with other Japanese-Americans during World War II. This ruling placed the security of the United States over individual rights and again has entered the political landscape with the detention of suspected terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay prison under President George W. Bush.


[1] Kelly, M. (2018). 7 Important Supreme Court Cases. Retrieved from

[2] Kelly, M. (2019). Marbury v. Madison - Supreme Court Case. Retrieved from