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The Most Influential Legal Cases of the Last Century

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At Total Bankruptcy, we're interested in bankruptcy law, but we also know that other influential cases affect us too.

The US legal system has changed dramatically over the past 100 years. These legal cases are some of the most influential cases that have impacted and shaped our legal system . In many states, lawyers are litigating cases based on these legal cases.

Check the historic legal cases across the country in this interactive infographic.

Influential Legal Cases

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The U.S has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Our justice system and body of laws are some of the most influential factors to how we function as a society. They determined how we buy and sell, how we settle disagreements, and they used to determine where we went to school and where we sat on the bus.

The most influential cases that were appealed to, and decided by, the Supreme Court of the United States.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 1954

Main Issue: Segregation

Background: Because of Topeka's segregated school system 3rd grader Linda Brown was forced to travel one mile to her all black school instead of attending an all white school that was only a few blocks from her home. In total, 13 plaintiffs banded together and with the help of the NAACP brought their case to the Supreme Court.

Decision: Separate education facilities are inherently unequal, and this decision helped to spur on the Civil Rights movement and desegregate America.

Roe v. Wade 1973

Main Issue: Abortion

Background: In 1969, Norma L. McCorvey, alias Jan Roe for use in court, attempted to obtain an abortion through legal means in Texas, but was denied because abortions were only available in cases of rape or incest. McCorvey sued claiming that the abortion laws violated her right to privacy.

Decision: Abortion is a right granted by the constitutional right to privacy until the fetus becomes viable. Abortion becomes legal in the U.S.

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan 1964

Main Issue: Freedom of the Press

Background:During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, many government figures in the south sued newspapers that wrote negative stories about them. This scared newspapers away from reporting the true nature of what was going on. When the New York Times ran one such story and sued, they took their case to the Supreme Court.

Decision: A public official must prove the story was written in actual malice. Newspapers were given a great deal of protection against libel lawsuits.

Gideon v. Wainwright 1963

Main Issue: Criminal Procedure

Background: In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was accused of robbing a Florida poll hall in the middle of the night. Gideon requested an attorney to defend him but was denied and was also found guilty of robbery. From jail, Gideon wrote to the Supreme Court and was granted a hearing.

Decision: Under the 6th Amendment, all defendants have the right to counsel and stat courts are required to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who cannot afford their own attorneys.

Miranda v. Arizona 1966

Main Issue: Criminal Procedure

Background: Ernesto Arturo Miranda was arrested for allegedly kidnapping and raping a woman in Phoenix, Arizona. Miranda was interrogated by police and eventually signed a written confession without ever being made aware of his right to an attorney or the right to remain silent. Miranda's court appointed attorney appealed his case after initially being found guilty.

Decision: Miranda was unjustly tried. Police must now make anyone arrested for a crime aware of their rights relating to interrogation.

Schenck v. United States 1919

Main Issue: Freedom of the Press

Background: Charles Schenck printed and distributed anti-draft leaflets to potential WWI draftees. He was arrested and convicted for violating the Espionage Act of 1917.

Decision: The defendant's actions caused a clear and present danger. Subsequently, free speech rights in times of war were weakened. The "clear and present danger" test set forth under this case has since been diminished by more recent first amendment ruling, such as in Brandenburg v. Ohio described below.

Brandenburg v. Ohio 1969

Main Issue: Freedom of Speech

Background: Clarence Brandenburg, a KU Klux Klan leader from Ohio, was arrested and convicted of advocating criminal syndicalism after giving a speech at the KKK rally. During this speech he make vague references to revenge against minorities and expressed dissatisfaction with the president and congress.

Decision: Brandenburg's speech was protected. Speech must now incite imminent lawless action to be considered illegal.

Near v. Minnesota 1931

Main Issue: Freedom of the Press

Background: In 1927 Jay M. Near began publishing a newspaper that described the local government of Minneapolis as corrupt and controlled by gangs through bribes. Near was arrested and convicted of creating a public nuisance. The court also issued an injunction banning Near from printing an further publications.

Decision: The defendant's rights were violated. Courts could not issue injunctions preventing the publication of dissenting newspapers.

Tinker v. Independent School District 1969

Main Issue: Freedom of Speech

Background: In 1965, 3 middle school students from Des Moines were suspended from school for wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. The students' families, with the assistance of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, sued the state and eventually appealed to the Supreme Court.

Decision: The students could wear armbands. Students are afforded certain First Amendment protections and any expression that does not substantially interfere with school discipline is allowed.

New York Times Co. v. United States 1971

Main Issue: Freedom of the Press

Background: In 1969, government contractor Daniel Ellsberg leaked a secret government study on the Vietnam War to the New York Times. After Learning of the leak the Nixon administration attempted to block the Times from publishing any of the material they had received. The Times refused and the case proceeded to the Supreme Court.

Decision: The Times was free to publish the material. The President could not prevent embarrassing material from being published.


The History of the Bankruptcy Law

Bankruptcy law has also evolved to help better serve people in need of financial relief.

Read our report on the history of how bankruptcy laws have changed over the years.


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