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Top 10 Court Cases that Changed America

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by Matt Wende It's the law of the land, and the land where nothing is more important than the law. Join as we count down our picks for the Top 10 Court Cases that Changed America. For this list, we're looking at court rulings from the United States that had a significant historical impact in shaping the country that exists today. Special thanks to our users Cunnin145, Thomas Mitchell Friend, Nana Amuah, Lindzzze and Andy Roehl for submitting the idea using our interactive suggestion tool at WatchMojo.comsuggest

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Script written by Matt Wende

Top 10 Court Cases That Changed America

It's the law of the land, and the land where nothing is more important than the law. Join as we count down our picks for the Top 10 Court Cases that Changed America.

For this list, we’re looking at court rulings from the United States that had a significant historical impact in shaping the country that exists today. Now please take your seats; court is now in session.

#10: Bush v. Gore

The 2000 U.S. Presidential election resulted in one of the most controversial and divisive legal decisions in the nation’s history. In Florida, the vote was deemed too close to call, and the Florida Supreme Court called for a recount. But the United States Supreme Court overturned the order and sided in favor of George W. Bush, effectively declaring him the next President, which caused concern for many critics who believed the Court had overstepped. Gore lost with grace, but after the events of 9/11 and the war on terror, many wondered what would have been in store for America had the Court decided differently.

#9: Obergefell v. Hodges

While many countries around the world have embraced same sex marriage for many years, it wasn’t until 2015 that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the right of people of the same sex to marry, making it a fundamental one. Named after James Obergefell, a man who sought to have his marriage to another man recognized in Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 split that same sex was legal under the constitution’s 14th Amendment. Citing the Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, the case overturned the 1971 ruling against same sex marriage in Baker v. Nelson.

#8: Marbury v. Madison

This case was of vital importance to American history, as it declared that the U.S. Supreme Court had the authority to overturn laws made by Congress and – perhaps more significantly – awarded it the power to interpret and lay down the law. In this case the Court unanimously sided against Marbury, who had brought forth a case petitioning for the Court to force the Secretary of State to give him an appointed position that had been promised to him by the previous administration. The decision stated that the law allowing the Supreme Court to do so was unconstitutional, and therefore would not be honored.

#7: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Acknowledging the disproportionate influence that corporate money can play in the outcome of political campaigns, the U.S. had sought to control what was termed electioneering communication. The radical decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission reversed that trend. Leading up to the Democratic primaries in 2008, conservative lobbying group Citizens United wished to run and advertise a disparaging movie about Hillary Clinton. The Supreme Court decided they could. With this decision, the Supreme Court granted the same 1st Amendment rights to corporations and unions as to individual citizens. The subsequent rise of super-PACS has allowed wealthy corporations and individuals to attempt to influence elections in a manner that may have serious and far reaching repercussions.

#6: New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

Back in the 1960s, the New York Times made a mistake, effectively stating untrue acts about the Police Force of Montgomery Alabama in relation to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern United States’ civil rights movements. The police commissioner, L.B. Sullivan, sued them for libel, a form of defamation. However, the Court ruled in favor of the New York Times, stating that a free press is necessary for a free country. This case set the precedent that in order to be found guilty of defamation, one must prove that there was an intention to harm, known as malice.

#5: Dred Scott v. Sandford

This is the story of Dred Scott, an African-American slave who moved with his owner to a free territory. After the death of his owner, Scott was inherited by his former owner’s widow, and he attempted – unsuccessfully – to purchase freedom for himself and his family. He filed a lawsuit however, stating that as he lived in a territory where slavery was outlawed, he was entitled to his freedom. The Supreme Court’s decision stated that all African-Americans – free or not – were not considered American citizens, and therefore had no right to bring about a lawsuit. This decision is consistently listed among the worst in the history of the Supreme Court.

#4: United States v. Nixon

Nixon actually said that. And the Supreme Court said, “Well, we’ll just have to see about that.” The Watergate special prosecutor subpoenaed Nixon to hand over several documents as evidence – specifically, tapes he had recorded. Citing executive privilege, Nixon refused. The case went down in history as the Supreme Court placed clear and defined limits on how far the president could go with regards executive privilege. The case set the groundwork for what would ultimately end in Nixon’s resignation 16 days after the Court handed down its decision.

#3: Miranda v. Arizona

The famous “Miranda Rights” are named after Ernesto Miranda, who confessed under police questioning to a horrible crime. However, at no time had Miranda been informed of his right to remain silent and to have an attorney present. While the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Miranda’s confession was admissible, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. This not only set a valuable precedent but also gave countless cop shows the familiar phrase, “Read him his rights.” In terms of the rights of criminals, Miranda v. Arizona built on the earlier trial of Gideon v. Wainwright, which stated that all defendants had the right to legal counsel.

#2: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

The 1896 court case of Plessy v. Ferguson was a troubling one, as it was that case that declared separate but equal standards to be right, effectively legalizing segregation in the United States. It wasn’t until 1954 that several parents went to court again, making the case that separate but equal was a myth and that African-Americans were being treated as second-class citizens. The Court unanimously ruled in the parents’ favor, stating that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment made separate but equal unconstitutional, proving to be a landmark win in the history of the Civil Rights movement.

Before we rule on our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
- Griswold v. Connecticut
Legalized the use of Birth Control.
- Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement
Major tobacco companies were forced to limit marketing and make payments to states to balance high healthcare costs of those with smoking-related illnesses.
- Metallica, et al. v. Napster, Inc.
Focusing on copyright infringement and more, this case set the precedent regarding file sharing.
- The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes [aka Scopes Monkey Trial]
When a teacher was fired for teaching evolution in a state-funded school, he sued the state and sparked a national conversation.
- McCulloch v. Maryland
Established that the Supreme Court had powers implied within the Constitution, even if they were not explicitly enumerated.

#1: Roe v. Wade

The Constitution is very clear on the laws of men, but it’s somewhat hazy about women. In the midst of feminism’s second wave, many women sought to control their own bodies and futures by obtaining the right to seek an abortion. The Supreme Court’s decision stated that it was a woman’s right to seek an abortion within the first trimester – although second trimester abortions could be regulated and third trimester abortions could be banned by the state altogether – citing clauses under both the 9th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, though these regulations have since evolved through other landmark cases. This milestone ruling has been the subject of intense debate and the issue continues to be contentious even in the 21st century.

Do you agree with our list? What landmark cases did we miss? For more Top 10s about history and pop culture, subscribe to

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