Landmark Supreme Court Cases

1. Introduction
This list of 79 US Supreme Court landmark cases, in which the ACLU was involved either as counsel of record or as friend-of-the-court, was compiled, as of Nov. 5, 2004, from the web site listings of: The Bill of Rights Institute, The Supreme Court Historical Society, Landmark Supreme Court Cases and Wikipedia. Each highlighted case links to its detailed summary.

What is a landmark case?
"A landmark decision is the outcome of a legal case (often thus referred to as a landmark case) that establishes a precedent that either substantially changes the interpretation of the law or that simply establishes new case law on a particular issue....

The term 'landmark decision' is not a formal legal term but a colloquialism, however it is in widespread use amongst legal professionals - over 5,000 published opinions of lower courts can be found identifying some precedent as a landmark decision in the field of law being addressed.
" Wikipedia

Authority Rankings

To demonstrate the relevance of the landmark cases in the context of U.S. legal history, we've listed "authority rankings" for each case. "Authority rankings" were developed by James Fowler, PhD, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego, for all Supreme Court decisions by considering "the number of times [a case] is cited and the quality of the cases that cite it."

According to Dr. Fowler, "authority rankings" correspond to "authority scores," which are significant because "cases with high authority scores are much more likely than others to appear on lists of 'landmark' cases chosen by legal experts and political scientists for their 'importance' and 'salience.' This method yields rankings that conform closely to evaluations by legal experts, and even predicts which cases they will identify as important in the future' Authority scores corroborate qualitative assessments of which issues and cases the [Supreme] Court prioritizes and how these change over time."

Dr. Fowler analyzed more than 30,000 cases from the year 1754 to 2002. Based on the authority scores, he assigned an authority ranking between 1 and 20,945. The higher the ranking, the more importance the case has as a landmark decision. The Supreme Court case with the highest authority score (Cantwell v. Connecticut, 1940) has the highest authority ranking (1); the cases with lower authority scores have the lowest ranking (20,945). The Authority of Supreme Court Precedent (PDF) 1.9 MB


1. 1925 Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652
Freedom of speech and of the press are "fundamental personal rights and 'liberties' protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment from impairment by the state."
Loss 22
2. 1932
Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45
The Court ruled that indigent defendants, when charged with a capital crime, must be assigned competent counsel by the court.
Win 97
3. 1937 De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 533
The Court extended to the states the federal protection of the right of peaceful assembly for lawful discussion.
Win 28
4. 1943 West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624
West Virginia Board's resolution ordering students and teachers to salute the flag was unconstitutional.
Win 14
5. 1947 Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1
The Court upheld a New Jersey statute which authorized reimbursement to parents of expenses related to the transportation of children to schools including parochial schools.
Loss 250
6. 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483
School segregation denies equal protection of the law to black students and thus is unconstitutional. The case overturned Plessy v. Fergusson which established the doctrine of "separate but equal."
Win 36
7. 1957 Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476
Obscenity and the publication of obscene material are not protected by the First Amendment.
Loss 10
8. 1958 Kent v. Dulles, 357 U.S. 116
Government cannot deny a passport to a citizen for the reason that applicant might have been a member of the Communist Party because "the right to travel is a part of the 'liberty' of which a citizen cannot be deprived without due process of law under the Fifth Amendment."
Win 245
9. 1961 Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643
The Court implemented the "exclusionary rule" which states that "all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Federal Constitution is inadmissible in a criminal trial in a state court."
Win 33
10. 1962 Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421
The requirement by the state that a non-denominational prayer be recited in public schools at the beginning of each school day, is unconstitutional government sponsorship of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.
Win 373
11. 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335
The court must assign an attorney in a criminal trial if defendant cannot afford one because the "assistance of counsel is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial."
Win 51
12. 1963 Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203
The First Amendment Establishment Clause forbids state mandated reading of the Bible or recitation of prayer in public school.
Win 210
13. 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254
To prove libel, a public official must prove that the statement is false and that it was published with a "malicious intent."
Win 5
14. 1964 Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478
Where a police investigation has pased the stage of "general inquiry," the suspect has the right to speak to an attorney and any confession obtained during the interrogation without the presence of an attorney is not admissible at trial.
Win 518
15. 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479
In stating a "right to privacy," the Court determined that a married couple's decision to use birth control was a personal decision and not subject to government regulation.
Win 30
16. 1966 Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436
In order to safeguard the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, the police must advise criminal suspects, prior to interrogation, that anything they say can be used against them in court, that they have the rights to remain silent, to consult with a lawyer and to have one appointed if they are indigent. The interrogation must stop if a suspect wishes to remain silent and, if a lawyer has been requested, until the attorney is present.
Win 57
17. 1968 Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1
The "stop and frisk" procedure is akin to a "search and seizure." Seized evidence will be admissible if the "stop and frisk" was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
Loss 22
18. 1968 Jones v. Mayer Co., 392 U.S. 409
Since the Civil Rights Act of 1968 does not apply only to state actions, it allows the federal government to prohibit discrimination in housing by private parties.
Win 543
19. 1968 Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97
The Court overturned an Arkansas law, which prohibited the teaching of evolution because the theory of evolution conflicted with the account of the origin of man set forth in the Book of Genesis, on the ground that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Win 48
20. 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 U.S. 503
The Court ruled that students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War was symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment.
Win 263
21. 1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444
Mere advocacy of the use of force, or of violation of law is protected by the First Amendment free speech clause. States can proscribe advocacy only when it is directed at producing "imminent lawless action" and is likely to produce such action.
Win 113
22. 1971 Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15
Wearing a jacket with the words "F*** the Draft" in a courthouse, does not amount to offensive conduct, and the conduct is therefore within the protection of the First Amendment.
Win 59
23. 1971 New York Times v. United States, 403 U.S. 713
The Court lifted a temporary injunction enjoining the publication of the so-called "Pentagon Papers," holding that their publication was within the protection of the First Amendment and would not endanger the safety of American forces.
Win 131
24. 1972 Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238
The imposition and carrying out of the death penalty was held to constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments because the decision was left to the uncontrolled discretion of judges or juries and was done in "an arbitrary, discriminatory, and capricious manner."
Win 368
25. 1973 San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1
Use of property tax as a mean to finance public education is constitutional.
Loss 248
26. 1973 Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677
Sex-based discrimination is inherently suspect. A statute giving benefits to the spouses of male but not female members of the uniformed services (on the assumption that only the former were dependent) is unconstitutional.
Win 357
27. 1973 Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15
The publication of obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment. A work is obscene when "'the average person, applying contemporary community standards' would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest and (...) [that it] lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."
Loss 71
28. 1974 United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683
In a criminal trial "absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets," an absolute presidential executive privilege from judicial process does not exist.
Win 512
29. 1976 Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1
The Court stated that "reasonable restrictions" on individual, corporate and group contributions to political candidates were permissible but disallowed limits on campaign expenditures because they "place substantial and direct restrictions" on protected political expression.
Win 55
30. 1976 Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539
In a criminal trial prior restraint on the press can be used only after less restraining measures to protect a right of fair trial have been found inadequate.
Win 536
31. 1976 Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190
Setting an older age limit for the purchase of alcohol for males than for females constitutes gender-based discrimination in violation of the equal protection clause.
Win 164
32. 1977 Linmark v. Willingboro, 431 U.S. 85
A township ordinance prohibiting the posting of real estate 'For Sale' and 'Sold' signs for the purpose of stemming what the township perceived as the flight of white homeowners from a racially integrated community held to violate the First Amendment.
Win 225
33. 1978 National Socialist Party vs. Village of Skokie, 432 U.S. 43
The Court ruled that the National Socialist (Nazi) Party could not be prohibited from marching peacefully, simply because of the content of their message.
Win 1,569
34. 1978 McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U.S. 618
A Tennessee law barring members of the clergy from public office was overturned on the ground that the law was in violation of the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion because it conditioned the right to free exercise of religion on the surrender of the right to seek office.
Win 1,767
35. 1978 Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265
Admissions to schools based on racial quotas violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, however race may be considered in admission decisions to achieve the compelling state interest of integrating the student body.
Loss 389
36. 1984 Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668
The Establishment Clause does not prohibit the display of a nativity scene in a municipal Christmas display.
Loss 1,014
37. 1985 New Jersey v. T.L.O., 468 U.S. 1214
The search of a student's purse was not in violation of the Fourth Amendment because the school's officials had "reasonable suspicion" to believe that the search will prove that the student violated the school's rules.
Loss 4,033
38. 1985 Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38
Alabama's statute allowing time for "voluntary prayer" constituted endorsement of religion by the state and was therefore unconstitutional.
Win 966
39. 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578
A state cannot condition teaching evolution on the teaching of "creation science" at the same time because it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Win 1,469
40. 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260
A school does not have to tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational goal, even when similar speech could not be censored outside the school.
Loss 1,752
41. 1988 Hustler v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46
Public figures cannot recover damages for libel and intentional infliction of emotional harm without showing that the publication contained a false statement of fact made with actual malice.
Win 649
42. 1989 Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397
Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable. Flag burning is symbolic speech.
Win 489
43. 1989 Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, 492 U.S. 573
The Court upheld the right of states to celebrate the Christmas holiday with a joint Menorah and Christmas tree display, but a nativity scene could not be displayed alone on the courthouse steps.
Win 2,024
44. 1990 United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, 494 U.S. 259
The Fourth Amendment does not apply to the search and seizure by United States agents of property owned by a nonresident alien and located in a foreign country. The reference in the Constitution to "the people" means all citizens and legal aliens while in the United States.
Loss 3,669
45. 1990 Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872
Oregon had a compelling state interest in prohibiting sacramental peyote use, and thus could deny unemployment benefits to anyone who was dismissed from a job for smoking peyote.
Loss 1,549
46. 1990 Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Dept. of Health, 497 U.S. 261
A state may constitutionally oppose a family's request to terminate the life sustaining treatments of their vegetative relative for lack of evidence of a clear earlier wish by the sick relative.
Loss 2,713
47. 1991 Powers v. Ohio, 499 U.S. 400
The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the use of peremptory challenges to strike prospective jurors solely on the basis of race.
Win 2,068
48. 1991 Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc., 501 U.S. 560
Nude dancing is not expressive conduct and is not protected by the First Amendment.
Loss 1,651
49. 1992 R.A.V. v. St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377
The Court overturned the conviction of a juvenile accused of burning a cross in the yard of a black family, on the grounds that Minnesota Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance prohibited speech on the basis of its content and constituted a viewpoint discrimination.
Win 934
50. 1992 Lee v. Weisman , 505 U.S. 577
Clergy-led prayer as part of an official public school graduation ceremony is in violation of the Establishment Clause.
Win 1,886
51. 1992 Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833
Consideration of the fundamental constitutional question resolved by Roe v. Wade and its holding are reaffirmed and Pennsylvania's abortion law is declared unconstitutional.
Win 1,766
52. 1993 Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520
Florida's ordinances, banning animal sacrifice, violated the First Amendment's Free Exercise of Religion Clause because they were not neutral and were targeting Santeria religion.
Win 3,971
53. 1995 U.S. Term Limits, Inc. v. Thornton, 514 U.S. 779
State law cannot impose additional congressional qualification to the one enumerated in the Constitution.
Win 5,028
54. 1995 Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557
Requiring private citizens who organize a parade to include against their will homosexual, lesbian and bisexual groups, would be a form of coerced speech and would violate organizers' First Amendment rights.
Loss 3,075
55. 1995 Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board v. Pinette, 515 U.S. 753
The state could not deny to the KKK a permit to erect an unattended cross on government property that had been opened to the public for speech.
Win 9,180
56. 1995 Rosenberg v. University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819
When a public university provides funds for the printing costs of a variety of student publications, it cannot withhold the funds to a students' group that would otherwise qualify on the ground that their newspaper has religious content.
Loss 3,257
57. 1996 Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620
State Constitution precluding protection of the law to a person based on their "homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships," is unconstitutional.
Win 8,880
58. 1996 United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515
The state operated Virginia Military Institute's categorical exclusion of women denies equal protection to women.
Win 20,945
59. 1996 Colorado Republican Federal Campaign v. Federal Election Commission, 518 U.S. 604
Campaign spending by political parties on behalf of congressional candidates may not be limited as long as the parties work independently of the candidates.
Loss 6,993
60. 1997 Schenck v. Pro Choice Network of Western New York, 519 U.S. 357
The injunction provision imposing a "fixed buffer zone" limitations is constitutional, because it protects the government's interest in public safety but the "floating buffer zone," limiting demonstrators' access within fifteen feet of people or cars, violates the First Amendment.
Loss 6,788
61. 1997 Chandler v. Miller, 520 U.S. 305
"Georgia's requirement that candidates for state office pass a drug test does not fit within the closely guarded category of constitutionally permissible suspicionless searches."
Loss 11,711
62. 1997 Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203
A federally funded program providing supplemental, remedial instruction to disadvantaged children on a neutral basis is not invalid under the Establishment Clause when such instruction is given on the premises of sectarian schools by government employees under a program containing safeguards.
Loss 8,535
63. 1997 City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507
The enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) was not a proper exercise of Congress' enforcement power because it contradicts vital principles necessary to maintain separation of powers and the federal state balance.
Loss 5,443
64. 1997 Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702
State prohibitions on assisted suicide are constitutional.
Loss 9,992
65. 1997 Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844
The Communication Decency Act regulating content on the Internet is overbroad and constitute an unconstitutional restraint on the First Amendment.
Win 6,939
66. 1998 Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113
Police searches of vehicles on routine traffic stops constitute "unreasonable search and seizure."
Win 20,945
67. 1999 Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation, 525 U.S. 182
States can not require that petition circulators be registered voters, wear name badges, and disclose information about themselves and their salaries because such requirements constitute unconstitutional limit on speech.
Win 20,945
68. 1999 Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41
Chicago's Gang Congregation Ordinance which prohibits "criminal street gang members" from loitering in public places fails to give the ordinary citizen adequate notice of what is forbidden and what is permitted and is thus unconstitutionally vague.
Win 6,788
69. 2000 Mitchell v. Helms, 530 U.S. 793
Federal provision providing for equipment to public, private and parochial school under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is constitutional.
Loss 13,797
70. 2000 Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290
Permitting student-led and student-initiated prayer on state run school ground at football games violates the Establishment Clause
Win 13,797
71. 2000 Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640
Forcing the Boy Scouts to admit a homosexual as a scout leader would violate the private organization's right of freedom of association and of "expressive association."
Loss 20,945
72. 2000 Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428
A constitutional decision of the US Supreme Court may not be in effect overruled by an Act of Congress.
Win 13,708
73. 2001 Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32
Indianapolis' checkpoint programs violated the Fourth Amendment because their primary purpose was indistinguishable from the general interest in crime control and did not fit into the established exceptions to individualized suspicion.
Win 13,219
74. 2001 Kyllo v. United States, 533 U.S. 27
Use of thermal-imaging devices to monitor heat emissions from a private residence in order to monitor activities occurring inside the home is a Fourth Amendment 'search,' and it is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant.
Win 20,945
75. 2001 Ferguson v. City of Charleston, 532 U.S. 67
Public hospital testing of pregnant women, without their consent, for cocaine use and reporting the results to police officials is an unconstitutional search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Win 20,945
76. 2002 Board of Education of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822
School district's requirement of drug tests for all students who wants to participate in extra-curricular activities is a "reasonable mean of furthering the School District's important interest in preventing and deterring drug use among its school-children."
Loss Not available
77. 2003 United States v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194
The federally mandated use of internet-filtering software in public libraries, to prevent viewing of pornography by minors does not violate the First Amendment rights of library patrons.
Loss Not available
78. 2003 Virginia v. Hicks, 539 U.S. 113
The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority policy, authorizing the police to serve notice or arrest any person lacking "a legitimate business or social purpose" on the low-income housing development was not overbroad and did not violate the First Amendment because it targeted all trespassers equally.
Loss Not available
79. 2003 Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558
The Texas statute making it a crime for two persons of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct violates the Due Process Clause.
Win Not available

Decade Total Number of
Landmark Cases
Number of ACLU

(Win %)
1920s 1 0 1 0.00%
1930s 2 2 0 100.00%
1940s 2 1 1 50.00%
1950s 3 2 1 66.67%
1960s 13 12 1 92.30%
1970s 14 11 3 78.57%
1980s 8 5 3 62.05%
1990s 25 14 11 56.00%
2000-2003 11 6 5 54.54%
78-Year Total 79 53 26 67.08%