List of landmark court decisions in the United States

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Landmark court decisions in the United States substantially change the interpretation of existing law. Such a decision may settle the law in more than one way:

  • establishing a significant new legal principle or concept;
  • overturning prior precedent based on its negative effects or flaws in its reasoning;
  • distinguishing a new principle that refines a prior principle, thus departing from prior practice without violating the rule of stare decisis;
  • establishing a test or a measurable standard that can be applied by courts in future decisions.

In the United States, landmark court decisions come most frequently from the Supreme Court. United States courts of appeals may also make such decisions, particularly if the Supreme Court chooses not to review the case or if it adopts the holding of the lower court, such as in Smith v. Collin. Although many cases from state supreme courts are significant in developing the law of that state, only a few are so revolutionary that they announce standards that many other state courts then choose to follow.

Individual rights[edit]

Discrimination based on race and ethnicity[edit]

Discrimination based on sex[edit]

Discrimination based on sexual orientation[edit]

Power of Congress to enforce civil rights[edit]

Birth control and abortion[edit]

End of life[edit]

Other areas[edit]

Criminal law[edit]

Fourth Amendment rights[edit]

Right to an attorney[edit]

Other rights regarding counsel[edit]

  • Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984) To obtain relief due to ineffective assistance of counsel, a criminal defendant must show that counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that counsel's deficient performance gives rise to a reasonable probability that, if counsel had performed adequately, the result of the proceeding would have been different.
  • Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010) Criminal defense attorneys are duty-bound to inform clients of the risk of deportation under three circumstances. First, where the law is unambiguous, attorneys must advise their criminal clients that deportation "will" result from a conviction. Second, where the immigration consequences of a conviction are unclear or uncertain, attorneys must advise that deportation "may" result. Finally, attorneys must give their clients some advice about deportation—counsel cannot remain silent about immigration consequences.

Right to remain silent[edit]


Detainment of terrorism suspects[edit]

Capital punishment[edit]

  • Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972) The arbitrary and inconsistent imposition of the death penalty violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. This decision initiates a nationwide de facto moratorium on executions that lasts until the Supreme Court's decision in Gregg v. Georgia (1976).
  • Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) Georgia's new death penalty statute is constitutional because it adequately narrows the class of defendants eligible for the death penalty. This case and the next four cases were consolidated and decided simultaneously. By evaluating the new death penalty statutes that had been passed by the states, the Supreme Court ended the moratorium on executions that began with its decision in Furman v. Georgia (1972).
  • Proffitt v. Florida, 428 U.S. 242 (1976) Florida's new death penalty statute is constitutional because it requires the comparison of aggravating factors to mitigating factors in order to impose a death sentence.
  • Jurek v. Texas, 428 U.S. 262 (1976) Texas's new death penalty statute is constitutional because it uses a three-part test to determine if a death sentence should be imposed.
  • Woodson v. North Carolina, 428 U.S. 280 (1976) North Carolina's new death penalty statute is unconstitutional because it calls for a mandatory death sentence to be imposed.
  • Roberts v. Louisiana, 428 U.S. 325 (1976) Louisiana's new death penalty statute is unconstitutional because it calls for a mandatory death sentence for a large range of crimes.
  • Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977) A death sentence may not be imposed for the crime of rape.
  • Enmund v. Florida, 458 U.S. 782 (1982) A death sentence may not be imposed on offenders who are involved in a felony during which a murder is committed but who do not actually kill, attempt to kill, or intend that a killing take place.
  • Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986) A death sentence may not be imposed on the insane.
  • Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 173 (1987) The death penalty is an appropriate punishment for a felony murderer who did not intend to cause the death, but was a major participant in the underlying felony and exhibited a reckless indifference to human life.
  • McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987) Evidence of a "racially-disproportionate impact" in the application of the dealth penalty indicated by a comprehensive scientific study is not enough to invalidate an individual's death sentence without showing a "racially discriminatory purpose."
  • Breard v. Greene, 523 U.S. 371 (1998) The International Court of Justice does not have jurisdiction in capital punishment cases that involve foreign nationals.
  • Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) A death sentence may not be imposed on mentally retarded offenders, but the states can define what it means to be mentally retarded.
  • Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) A death sentence may not be imposed on juvenile offenders.
  • Baze v. Rees, 553 U.S. 35 (2008) The three-drug cocktail used for performing executions by lethal injection in Kentucky (as well as virtually all of the states using lethal injection at the time) is constitutional under the Eighth Amendment.
  • Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008) The death penalty is unconstitutional in all cases that do not involve homicide or crimes against the state such as treason.
  • Glossip v. Gross, 576 U.S. ___ (2015) The Eighth Amendment requires prisoners to show 1.) there is a known and available alternative method of execution and 2.) the challenged method of execution poses a demonstrated risk of severe pain, with the burden of proof resting on the prisoners, not the state.
  • Bucklew v. Precythe', 587 U.S. ___ (2019), Baze v. Rees and Glossip v. Gross govern all Eighth Amendment challenges alleging that a method of execution inflicts unconstitutionally cruel pain. When a convict sentenced to death challenges the State's method of execution due to claims of excessive pain, the convict must show that other alternative methods of execution exist and clearly demonstrate they would cause less pain than the state-determined one.

Other criminal sentences[edit]

  • Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471 (1972) The Supreme Court extended Fourteenth Amendment due process protection to the parole revocation process, hold that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires a "neutral and detached" hearing body such as a parole board to give an evidentiary hearing prior to revoking the parole of a defendant and spelled out the minimum due process requirements for the revocation hearing.
  • Gagnon v. Scarpelli, 411 U.S. 778 (1973) The Supreme Court issued a substantive ruling regarding the rights of individuals in violation of a probation or parole sentence. It held that a previously sentenced probationer is entitled to a hearing when his probation is revoked. More specifically the Supreme Court held that a preliminary and final revocation of probation hearings are required by Due Process; the judicial body overseeing the revocation hearings shall determine if the probationer or parolee requires counsel; denying representation of counsel must be documented in the record of the Court.
  • Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974) In administrative proceedings regarding discipline, prisoners retain some of their due process rights. When a prison disciplinary hearing might result in the loss of good-time credits, due process requires that the prison notify the prisoner in advance of the hearing, afford him an opportunity to call witnesses and present documentary evidence in his defense, and furnish him with a written statement of the evidence relied on and the reason for the disciplinary action.
  • Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000) Other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004) Mandatory state sentencing guidelines are the statutory maximum for purposes of applying the Apprendi rule.
  • Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010) A sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole may not be imposed on juvenile non-homicide offenders.
  • Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) A sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole may not be a mandatory sentence for juvenile offenders.
  • Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U.S. ___ (2020) The Sixth Amendment right to jury trial and an unanimous verdict to convict a defendant of a serious offense is an incorporated right to the states.

Other areas[edit]

Election-related cases[edit]


Federal Indian law[edit]

First Amendment rights[edit]

General aspects[edit]

  • National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, 432 U.S. 43 (1977) If a state seeks to impose an injunction in the face of a substantial claim of First Amendment rights, it must provide strict procedural safeguards, including immediate appellate review. Absent such immediate review, the appellate court must grant a stay of any lower court order restricting the exercise of speech and assembly rights.

Freedom of speech and of the press[edit]

Freedom of religion[edit]

Freedom of association[edit]

Freedom of petition[edit]

Second Amendment rights[edit]

Third Amendment rights[edit]

  • Engblom v. Carey, 677 F.2d 957 (2d Cir. 1982) Members of the National Guard qualify as "soldiers" under the Third Amendment. The Third Amendment is incorporated against the states through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. And the protection of the Third Amendment applies to anyone who, within their residence, has a legal expectation of privacy and a legal right to exclude others from entry into the premises. This case is notable for being the only case based on Third Amendment claims that has been decided by a federal appeals court.

Fourteenth Amendment rights[edit]

Executive power[edit]



Other areas[edit]

Voting and Redistricting[edit]

Takings Clause[edit]

  • Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104 (1978) Whether a regulatory action that diminishes the value of a claimant's property constitutes a "taking" of that property within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment depends on several factors, including the economic impact of the regulation on the claimant, particularly the extent to which the regulation has interfered with distinct investment-backed expectations, as well as the character of the governmental action.
  • Dolan v. City of Tigard, 512 U.S. 374 (1994) A government agency may not take property in exchange for benefits that are unrelated to the agency's interest in the property.
  • Lingle v. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., 544 U.S. 528 (2005) Contrary to the holding of Agins v. City of Tiburon, which held that a government regulation of private property effects a taking if such regulation does not substantially advance legitimate state interests, the test of whether a governmental regulation substantially advances a legitimate state interest is irrelevant to determining whether the regulation effects an uncompensated taking of private property in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
  • Kelo v. City of New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005) Local governments may seize property for economic development purposes. Noted for converting the "public use" requirement of the Takings Clause (Fifth Amendment) to "public purpose."





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  5. ^ Supreme Court Decision on Justia