6 Court Cases That Have Changed Our Society
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Politics and Activism

6 Court Cases That Have Changed Our Society

Thanks to those who spend their time and money fighting for us, our rights have been protected by lawyers and judges.

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6 Court Cases That Have Changed Our Society

Checks and balances within the United States has prevented each branch from gaining too much power. When local, state, or federal legislation seems to violate constitutional laws, courts can jump in and reject the law. One Supreme Court case in particular granted the Supreme Court this power and strengthened their role in checks and balances. In 1803, Marbury v. Madison established judicial review, which allows the Supreme Court to examine the constitutionality of state or federal legislative acts and declare them invalid. It has since then protected civil rights, privacy, autonomy, and much, much more. Check out six court cases below that have changed society.



1. Obergefall v. Hodges

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"No longer may this liberty be denied," announced Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on June 26, 2015. After decades of fighting for gay rights, which was ignited with the Stonewall Riots in 1969, same-sex couples were federally given the right to marry. When several same-sex couples sued their states, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Michigan, for prohibiting gay marriage, the trails upheld the laws. The cases consolidated into one case and were appealed to the Supreme Court. Two questions were addressed: 1) if the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to license marriages between two people of the same sex and 2) if the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to recognize same-sex marriages legally entered into in other states. In a 5-4 ruling, same-sex couples were given equal rights regarding marriage. Same-sex couples were now legally allowed to get married and states must recognize their marriage if they married out of state. Now, marriage for same-sex couples was no longer a gamble based on what state they were in or about finding legal loopholes. Same-sex couples now enjoy legal equality to heterosexual couples and can not be discriminated against based on their sexuality.

2. Heumann v. Board of Education of the City of New York

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Judy Heumann used a wheelchair due to contracting polio as an infant. She lived through the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that granted people with disabilities access to federally funded programs and buildings such as school. Later in her life, she passed the oral and written exams to receive licensure as a teacher but the New York City Board of Education denied it based on her physical disability. She reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union to help her file a discrimination case, but they rejected the case on the basis that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn't cover disability. In 1970, Heumann sued the Board and it reached district courts, but the Board realized they would lose and settled. Heumann was the first teacher in New York City to use a wheelchair.

3. Griswold v. Connecticut

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Birth control wasn't always legal. Laws differed by state, but in 1879, Connecticut passed the strictest contraceptive laws and completely banned the use of any drug or medical device for contraception. Meanwhile, 24 other states only banned the sales or advertising of contraceptives. Yale gynecologist C. Lee Buxton and head of Planned Parenthood in Connecticut Estelle Griswold opened a birth control clinic together, knowing full well they would face consequences. They were arrested and higher state courts upheld the ban. They carried the case all the way to the Supreme Court arguing a right to marital privacy in the Fourteenth Amendment and won 7-2. In 1965, birth control was now federally legal for married couples, and now these couples have the right to more effectively family plan. It wasn't until seven years later that single people were granted the same privacy.

4. Eisenstadt v. Baird

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"It is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child," noted Justice William J. Brennan in regards to this Supreme Court case following Griswold vs. Connecticut. The case began at Boston University which bred the grounds for universal access to birth control for all people whether married or single. In 1979, William Baird gave a lecture on birth control, abortion, and over-population to over 2,500 students. He handed an unmarried student a condom and contraceptive foam, but authorities retaliated and he was arrested and convicted of two felonies However, he only served three months in jail. The case went to the Supreme Court and in 1972, the right to privacy was extended from married people to single people in a 6-1 ruling and birth control became legally accessible to everyone.

5. Gideon v. Wainwright

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Clarence Earl Gideon could not afford a lawyer, so he represented himself in state court. With felony charges for breaking and entering, he faced expensive legal fees, and showed up to court without counsel and requested a lawyer, but he was denied. He lost and received a five year sentence. However, Gideon was not done fighting for his right to counsel. Gideon petitioned, arguing that the refusal violated his constitutional rights to have a lawyer, and the case was taken to the Supreme Court. Did the sixth amendment's gaurantee of a lawyer extend to state courts? The Supreme Court ruled that yes, defendants have a right to counsel whether they can afford it or not.

6. Juliana v. United States

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Keep an eye out for a Supreme Court case that may require the United States to take action regarding climate change. Youth activists around the world have been suing their governments, such as in Pakistan, Columbia, Pakistan, the Netherlands, and South Korea, who experienced a case filed as recently as March 2020, arguing that the toxic emissions of greenhouse gases infringe on constitutional rights to life and dignity. The United State's case, Juliana v. United States, was filed in 2015 by 21 youth. In January it was dismissed by federal courts and the justices were divided. Currently, attorneys have filed for petitions for the court to hear the case again and several law, public health, environmental, human rights, and children's advocacy groups have collectively submitted ten amicus briefs that support rehearing the case. This case is still in federal courts, but perhaps, perhaps not, it will make it to the Supreme Court.

While the Supreme Court is not a legislative branch and cannot draft laws and implement them, they can keep the legislative branch in check through analyzing the constitutionality of laws that parties debate. Because of the Supreme Court, gay people have the right to marry, teachers can use wheelchairs, birth control is legal, everyone has the right to an attorney, and more, just to name a few.

We'll have to see what happens with Juliana v. United States and, furthermore, what else the Supreme Court and other courts will debate that may change our lives.

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