Landmark Supreme Court Cases
home | many pasts | evidence | www.history | blackboard | reference
talking history | syllabi | students | teachers | puzzle | about us
search: go!
advanced search - go!

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court
Created and maintained by Street Law, Inc. and the U.S. Supreme Court Historical Society.
Reviewed May-June 2012.

Street Law began as a Georgetown University School of Law community service project to enable District of Columbia students to navigate their legal environment, but it evolved into a multifaceted organization devoted to educating the public in law, democracy, and human rights. The Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court Web site was developed from Street Law’s original mission and, supported by the U.S. Supreme Court Historical Society, is intended to provide teachers with resources to support instruction in Supreme Court cases.

Fountain of Justice, Frankfurt, Germany

The site consists of material on seventeen nineteenth- and twentieth-century Supreme Court cases. Each is divided into five sections: an overview, suggestions for classroom activities, the opinion, links to additional resources, and a restricted-access teacher resource center. Each section is then subdivided into three reading levels. The overview section provides appropriately pitched, clearly written descriptions of the case with a list of key legal concepts and vocabulary. Another section contains a summary of the Court’s decision, key excerpts from the opinion—including the dissents, if any—and a link to the full text. Still another section has highly detailed suggestions for single- or multiday activities that use specific pedagogical techniques familiar to most teachers, and a list of suggested discussion questions. The restricted-access teacher resource section provides the specific learning objectives and possible answers. The last section contains references directing the reader to other resources, including, notably, recordings of oral arguments; unfortunately there are no recommendations for further reading in secondary materials.

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court is not comprehensive and excludes nineteenth-century decisions in favor of less significant twentieth-century selections. The nineteenth-century cases—Marbury v. Madison (1803), McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)—are unquestionably major ones. For the twentieth century only Brown v. Board of Education (1954) is of comparable stature. Roe v. Wade (1973), to a far lesser degree, may also be considered a legal landmark, but the remaining cases reflect Street Law’s original audience and not a judgment of long-term historical or legal consequence. Mapp v. Ohio (1961, addressing the exclusion of evidence in violation of the Constitution), Gideon v. Wainwright (1963, covering the right to counsel) and Miranda v. Arizona (1966, on a criminal suspect’s rights) may have collective importance, but individually they probably cannot be considered in the same class as Marbury or, for that matter, Gibbons. Four less notable decisions—Tinker v. Des Moines (1969, addressing free speech), Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1987, regarding censorship of student newspapers), New Jersey v. T. L. O. (1985, on student search and seizure), and Texas v. Johnson (1989, addressing free speech)—may have contemporary currency but lack substance. Of the remaining three cases, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) has faded into obscurity as the law dealing with affirmative action in higher education admissions has moved on, while United States v. Nixon (1974) and Korematsu v. United States (1944) have more limited status as landmarks.

While these cases may have practical utility for Street Law’s original constituencies, I wonder how a teacher could use the materials in the classroom. Secondary school curricula would seem to have little space for even the occasional use of individual cases. One might justify a day spent on the famous and well-known cases (such as Brown) but would be hard pressed to do so for the lesser ones, such as Bakke, Mapp, or Tinker. While the attempt to institutionalize instruction in the law and the Supreme Court is laudable, this site has limited use beyond its immediate and original audience.

Jonathan M. Chu
University of Massachusetts-Boston
Boston, Massachusetts