Court cases

Abington School District v. Schempp (1963)
A year after the US Supreme Court struck down prayer in schools in the case Engel v. Vitale, it re-visited the issue of religion in schools in Abington School District v. Schempp Pennsylvania state law had sought to get around the Court's opposition to prayer in school by requiring that "at least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day."  The verses were from the New Testament. At Abington Senior High School , which the Schempp children attended, the verses were read by students and broadcast to all classrooms through the intercommunications system, followed by the recitation of the Lord's Prayer and then the Pledge of Allegiance. Although students were not required to be present when the verses were read, if they left the room and stood outside in the hall, they would miss public announcements and could also be seen as misfits by their peers.

The US Supreme Court ruled on behalf of the Schempp family, which had challenged the practice on the grounds that it violated the separation of Church and State.  It declared that "the very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.  One's right to...freedom of worship...and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections...In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality."

Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969)
A leader of the Ku Klux Klan was arrested after he made a speech at a Klan rally and charged under an Ohio law that made it illegal to advocate "crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful means of terrorism..."  The Supreme Court struck down this law as over broad.  It ruled that speech could only be prohibited if it is "directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action" and is "likely to incite or produce such action."  Mere advocacy which does not incite imminent lawless action is protected by the First Amendment.

Cox v. Louisiana (1965)
In 1961 Elton Cox led students on a civil rights demonstration through the streets of Baton Rouge to the courthouse.  They kept to the side of the road so traffic would not be obstructed.  At lunchtime, Cox called for demonstrators to try to get service at one of the segregated lunch counters in the vicinity.  At this point, police fired tear gas at the crowd and arrested Cox.  He was convicted of disturbing the peace.  The US Supreme Court struck down the state law under which he was convicted, saying it was overbroad and not fairly applied.  The court said other parades and street meetings that blocked the street had been permitted under the law, and Cox had been deprived of the right of free speech and assembly.  The Court added that "the rights of free speech and assembly do not mean that everyone may address a group in any public place at any time."

Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972)
William Baird was convicted in Massachusetts of giving contraception to an unmarried woman in violation of a state law that said contraception could only be given by authorized distributors (which Baird was not) and then only to married couples.  The US Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, stating there was no "rational basis" to distinguish between married and single people in this way, and that this was an "unwarranted governmental intrusion."

Engel v. Vitale (1962)
In a case arising from New York , the Supreme Court invalidated the use in schools of an official prayer, ruling that it violated the First Amendment's "Establishment Clause" which prohibits the favoring of one religion over another by the government.  The prayer read, "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen."

Furman v. Georgia (1972)
The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in Furman v. Georgia brought to a halt all executions that were pending in the 39 states that had the death penalty.  At the time there were 600 people on death row, but executions were infrequently carried out.  Under review were three different cases in which the death penalty was given African-American defendants:  Lucious Jackson, who was convicted of rape in Georgia; Elmer Branch, who was convicted of rape in Texas ; and William Henry Furman, who was convicted of murder in Georgia .  Furman was robbing a house when he was surprised by the return of the resident.  He tripped while trying to escape from the house and accidentally discharged his weapon, killing the resident. The Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision held that the death penalty was imposed in such a random way that it was no longer a credible deterrent to crime and in these instances, constituted cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Eighth Amendment.  The justices were very divided in their reasoning.  One wrote that he could not permit "this unique penalty to be so wantonly and so freakishly imposed."  Others felt the death penalty had no place in contemporary society, and was disproportionately used against members of minority groups.  Dissenting justices maintained that it could only be abolished by legislatures, not by the courts.  After this decision, 37 states rewrote their death penalty laws to make them "constitutional."   These re-drafted laws were upheld by the Supreme Court beginning with its 1976 decision in Gregg v. Georgia

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
This landmark case began with a break-in at a Florida pool hall, and the theft of money from a cigarette machine and jukebox.  Clarence Gideon was arrested and brought to court where he asked the judge to provide a lawyer since he could not afford to hire one.  The judge said that since he was not charged with a capital crime and there were no special circumstances, he would have to defend himself.  He tried to do so, and was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.  While in prison he studied the law.  He filed a habeas corpus petition to the Florida Supreme Court which rejected it.  Undeterred, he filed another petition to the US Supreme Court which agreed to hear his case.  The Supreme Court ruled that thanks to the Fourteenth Amendment, he had the fundamental right under the Sixth Amendment to be represented by counsel when being tried for a crime in state court.  If an indigent defendant could not afford to hire one, counsel should be assigned by the court.

Gregg v. Georgia (1976)
Tony Gregg had been sentenced to death in Georgia for armed robbery and murder.  When he appealed his sentence as "cruel and unusual" and a violation of the Eighth Amendment, the US Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision upheld the sentence.  The court ruled that the death penalty was an appropriate punishment in extreme criminal cases and that Georgia had developed appropriate standards and other safeguards to guide a jury's deliberations in capital cases.

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)
The head of Planned Parenthood in Connecticut was convicted under a state law that barred counseling married persons for the purpose of preventing contraception.  Her conviction was overturned and the law struck down by the Supreme Court which ruled that although a right to "privacy" was not specifically spelled out in the Constitution, the right to privacy in marital relations was to be found in "penumbras" of constitutional protections contained in the First, Third, and Ninth Amendments.

In Re Gault (1967)
Because 15-year-old Gerald Francis Gault had previously been put on probation, an Arizona Juvenile Court judge had no hesitation in committing him to State Industrial School until the age of 21 when he was accused of making an obscene phone call.  The US Supreme Court decided to take the case in order to review the adequacy of Arizona 's delinquency proceedings.  It decided that the juvenile court was basically a "kangaroo court" and that juveniles should have all the due process protections of adults in criminal proceedings.

Katz v. United States (1967)
With its decision in this case the Supreme Court reversed Olmstead v. U.S. and brought electronic surveillance within the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.  The case involved a listening device installed in a public telephone booth.  Government agents listened in only when the suspect was using the phone.  The court ruled that a conversation was a "thing" which could be seized and that the government agents needed to get a warrant before installing the wiretap.

Loving v. Virginia (1967)
Mildred Jeter, a Black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, were residents of Virginia where interracial marriage was barred by law.  They got married in 1958 in the District of Columbia .  When they returned to Virginia , they were arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for violating the ban.  The US Supreme Court unanimously overturned their conviction.  Stating that marriage was a basic civil right, the court ruled that "the freedom to marry, or not to marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State."

Mapp v. Ohio (1961)
After police forcibly entered the home of Dolree Mapp in search of a fugitive and then searched her entire home without a search warrant, she was arrested and charged with possessing illegal obscene (pornographic) materials.  The US Supreme Court ruled that evidence seized without a properly executed search warrant had to be excluded from state as well as federal courts.  This is known as the "exclusionary rule."

Miranda v. Arizona (1966)
Ernest Miranda was arrested in Arizona, and after being interrogated by police, confessed to robbery, kidnapping and rape.   He was convicted on basis of his confession, since no other evidence was presented in court.  The Supreme Court ordered a retrial.  In its decision it formulated what is known as the "Miranda Warning" – anyone being held by the police must be informed before being interrogated that he has the right to remain silent; that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law; that he has the right to have an attorney present; and that an attorney will be appointed if he cannot afford to pay one.   The court stated that if, at any time prior to or during questioning, the person indicates that he wishes to remain silent, the interrogation must cease.  "If the individual states that he wants an attorney, the interrogation must cease until an attorney is present. At that time, the individual must have an opportunity to confer with the attorney and to have him present during any subsequent questioning."  Miranda was retried without his confession being used in court.  On the basis of other evidence he was again convicted.

Olmstead v. United States  (1928)
Roy Olmstead was a suspected bootlegger and whose conversations were wiretapped without judicial approval. He was convicted from the evidence used from these tapes. The Supreme Court held that his Fourth Amendment rights were not violated when his telephone was tapped since only the physical examination of tangible objects – not listening into conversations – constituted a search.  Neither was the wiretap a violation of his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. This case was reversed by Katz v. U.S. (1967).

Roe v. Wade (1973)
In this now threatened landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a state law that made abortion a criminal offense on the grounds that it violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which protected the right of privacy.  The right of privacy included the qualified right to terminate a pregnancy, depending on the stage of pregnancy involved.  After six months of a pregnancy, the state has the right to restrict abortion except where necessary to preserve the life of the mother.

United States v. O'Brien (1968)
In March 1966, during the Vietnam War, David Paul O'Brien and three other men burned their draft cards o the steps of a courthouse in Boston.  O'Brien was arrested by an FBI agent and charged and convicted under a section of the Selective Service Act that made it a crime to "knowingly destroy" a draft card.  The Supreme Court upheld his conviction on the grounds that preventing the destruction of draft cards furthered an important government interest that justified a restriction of the First Amendment.