It could be argued that any legal case that makes it as far as the Supreme Court is political in nature. After all, the Judiciary is one of the three branches of the U.S. government. It both influences, and is influenced by, politics. Still three stand out historically, and two stand out within the last decade as — good or bad — major cases in our nations political history. There are others of huge import of course, but these too have had major affects on the fate of the nation and are worth a look.
1. McCulloch v. Maryland
The case of McCulloch v. Maryland had an enormous effect on the court’s power to alter, or interpret, governmental boundaries. It also resulted in the creation of the U.S. National Bank. Prior to this landmark case, the extent of the government’s ability to interpret the constitution had not been entirely explored, though there was a fair amount of precedent — especially regarding judicial review in Marbury v. Madison.
Chief Justice at the time, John James Marshal, ruled that if a government tried to write out the detailed workings of each and ever aspect of their constitution, it would “partake of the prolixity of a legal code, and could scarcely be embraced by the human mind,” meaning that it would basically be a billion page document stretching across the entire continent and beyond. “It’s nature, therefore, requires that only its great outlines should be marked, its important objects designated, and the minor ingredients, which compose those objects be deduced from the nature of the objects themselves,” said Marshal, according to Supremecourt.gov.
2. Grutter v. Bollinger
Hand in hand with the earlier case of California v. Bakke, Grutter v. Bollinger dealt with the issue of affirmative action; the admission of individuals to law school with an emphasis on racial status. The policy was meant to aid those in racial groups dealing with historical and still relevant societal and socioeconomic disadvantages. Graduate schools with the goal of increasing diversity implemented the policy of affirmative action to help those of historically disadvantaged races get into schools.
In the case of California v. Bakke, it was ruled that the system used to aid such people was too much like a quota system that quantified the importance of their racial status in making the decision. The reason that Grutter v. Bollinger is the more political of the two lies in the court’s majority opinion. The case ruled that the law school’s consideration of race was allowable in the case of the University of Michigan’s Law School, because it was a “narrowly tailored plan.” It also noted the importance of the university’s diverse student body in determining the future political leaders of the country.
“Because universities, and in particular, law schools, represent the training ground for a large number of the Nation’s leaders, the path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity,” reads the case syllabus.
3. Texas v. Johnson
Flag Burning; it doesn’t get much more political than this — but the Supreme Court decision dealing with this precedent setting freedom of speech issue managed to hold to the First Amendment despite a chorus of angry patriotic voices.
Gregory Johnson, the burner of the flag in question, was involved in an anti-Reagan protest also criticizing certain corporations in Dallas. The ruling held that Johnson’s public burning demonstration counted as “expressive conduct,” and now serves as legislative back-up for American’s rights to political protest and government criticism.
4. United States v. Windsor
Now that we’ve caught up to the present day, the case of United States v. Windsor took place in March of 2013, and was decided in June of this year. The case dealt with the highly divisive and political issue of gay marriage, and resulted in the removal of the Defense of Marriage Act — also known as DOMA. DOMA had stated that states need not recognize the legitimacy of same sex marriages occurring within other states.
More than being a case involving highly politicized liberal and conservative issues, the case of United States v. Windsor protected the sanctity of state law, as well as maintaining equal protection of rights and due process.
5. National Federation of Independent Business v. Kathleen Sebelius
Finally, we have a case that’s led to a lot of news this year — the one that declared President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare reform law, the Affordable Care Act, constitutional. The court considered legitimacy of a “penalty” being exacted on those without health insurance, but found that Congress did in fact have the power to tax.
“The payment may for constitutional purposes be considered a tax. The payment is not so high that there is really no choice but to buy health insurance. Neither the Affordable Care Act nor any other law attaches negative legal consequences to not buying health insurance, beyond requiring a payment to the IRS,” read the court Syllabus.
Considering both the good and bad effects wrought by Obamacare — a bungled roll-out and low enrollment rate, but greater healthcare opportunities — this has been a major ruling in the last couple years, and within our generation.