Maryland government court cases to know

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High school students taking a government class in Maryland will study the Constitution in great depth. The state education department has included a few cases decided by the Supreme Court. Students are expected to know the situation behind each of these cases, the constitutional question the Court answered in the decision, and the significance of the decision. The cases were chosen to cover five general government concepts:

  • Individual liberty: Miranda v Arizona (1966)[1], Tinker v Des Moines (1969)[2], and New Jersey v TLO (1985)[3]
  • Federalism: McDonald v Chicago (2010)[4]
  • Separation of powers: United States v Nixon (1974)[5]
  • Checks and balances: Marbury v Madison (1803)[6]
  • Equal protection: Brown v Board of Education (1954)[7], Baker v Carr (1962)[8]

Other cases that address the same issues could be used, but information about these cases should be provided on any test question students are asked to complete. The state formerly used McCulloch v Maryland, Plessy v Ferguson, and Gideon v Wainwright, but these have been removed. Their descriptions are included here with the others, as these cases may be taught in government classrooms and certainly constitute valid application of government principles.

Marbury v Madison (1803)

  • Argued February 11, 1803
  • Decided February 24, 1803

SITUATION:

The elections of 1800 were between members of the Federalist Party, who were already in office and Republican candidates. The Republicans won sweeping victories, including Thomas Jefferson for President of the United States. As the result of the elections, the Federalists no longer would have a majority in Congress, but there were several months between the November elections and the date when the Republican winners would take office. During that time, the Federalists passed a law, the Judiciary Act of 1789, which, in addition to making reforms in the federal courts, created many new judgeships. Samuel Adams, the outgoing President, appointed other Federalists to fill them. In this way, the Federalists hoped to hold on to some power in the government. One of these new appointees was William Marbury, who was named a justice of the peace for the District of Columbia.

Marbury's commission, the papers appointing him to his new job, were signed by President Adams, but John Marshall, the outgoing secretary of State, forgot to deliver them. After Jefferson took office, he told his new Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver the commission. Marbury asked the Supreme Court to order Madison to deliver the commission to him. Such an order is called a writ of mandamus. While the Constitution did not give the Supreme Court the authority to make such an order, Congress included it in the court’s powers in the Judiciary Act of 1789.

CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTIONS:

The Court asked three questions:

  1. Was Marbury entitled to the job?
  2. If so, was he entitled to protection by the law?
  3. If so, was that protection a Supreme Court order as allowed by the Judiciary Act of 1789?

The first question has to do with the authority of government officials like Madison. The third question has to do with whether Congress has authority to expand the powers of the Supreme Court beyond those given to the court in the Constitution.

DECISION (9-0):

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the opinion of the Court. In answer to the first question, the court decided that the appointment of Marbury was in effect once the commission papers had been signed, and therefore Madison had an obligation to deliver them. In answer to the second question, Marshall used a principle of law dating back to the old English courts. That principle states that when someone is wronged, there must be a remedy. Thus, Marbury should have a remedy.

The third question was the most important. The Court's opinion said that Marbury had gone to the wrong court. In arriving at that answer, Justice Marshall created the principle of 'judicial review.'

Marbury had asked the Supreme Court to order the delivery of his commission papers. The Court was given the authority to make such an order under the Judiciary Act of 1789. Can a law passed by Congress give the Supreme Court powers not stated in the Constitution?

Marshall wrote that under Article III of the Constitution, the Supreme Court is given authority to hear only a few types of cases before any other court has made a decision in the case. Marbury's case was not one of those types. The Constitution goes on to demand that in all other situations the court can only hear a case on appeal. Therefore the Constitution itself does not allow the Court to issue such an order. The Constitution does not give Congress the right to change or increase the types of cases the Court can hear directly. But Congress had passed a law that that increased the Court’s responsibility. Must the Court follow it?

Justice Marshall said that the Court could not because the law itself reached beyond the powers granted by the Constitution to Congress. Therefore, the law itself was unconstitutional. Further, Marshall said, that since courts had the responsibility to interpret laws, the Supreme Court had the authority to declare a law passed by Congress unconstitutional.

SIGNIFICANCE:

Marbury v Madison established the principle of "judicial review," the authority of the federal courts, especially the Supreme Court, to declare laws and actions of the federal government unconstitutional. It is important to note, however, that the Supreme Court did not declare another law passed by Congress unconstitutional. It was not until after the Civil War that the Court started to use the power with on a regular basis.

McCulloch v Maryland (1819)

  • Argued February 22, 1819
  • Decided March 6, 1819

SITUATION:

This was the first time the Supreme Court was called on to decide on a disagreement between a state law and a national law. In 1816, Congress passed a law creating the Second Bank of the United States. The credit policies of this bank were so rigid that they caused an economic depression. Many states tried to find ways to get around these problems. Some would not let the bank operate in their states. Six states, including Maryland, passed laws to tax the operation of this national bank. In Baltimore, James McCulloch, a cashier with the Second Bank of the United States, issued bank notes without paying the Maryland state tax. The state took him to trial. After the Maryland courts held that the state law was constitutional, McCulloch appealed his case to the United States Supreme Court.

CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTIONS:

There were two questions the court had to answer:

  1. Does the Constitution allow Congress to create a bank?
  2. If so, does a state have the power to tax the operation of this national bank?

The first question involves the meaning of "implied powers" and the Constitution's "Necessary and Proper" clause. The second question involves conflicts between federal and state laws.

DECISION (9-0):

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the opinion of the court. In order to answer the first question, Marshall first thought it necessary to comment on the nature of the document the court was interpreting. Marshall argued, "It is a constitution we are expounding," and that by the nature of a constitution "only its great outlines should be marked, its important objects designated, and the minor ingredients which composed those objects be deduced from the nature of the objects themselves." In other words, a constitution marks only the broad outline of the powers of government and should not be read too narrowly so as to prevent the legitimate objects of government. Since the creation of a bank was not specifically set out in the Constitution, it is connected to powers in the Constitution, such as taxation, borrowing money and regulating commerce. Therefore, the "necessary and proper clause" should be interpreted to allow government to choose the means to carry out its enumerated powers. Marshall said, "Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution, and all means which are ... adapted to that end, which are not prohibited ... are constitutional."

When it came to the power of the state of Maryland to tax the bank, Marshall states that the Constitution is a creation not of the states but of the people acting through the constitutional conventions held in their states. Because the people created the Constitution, "The states have not power ... in any manner [to] control the operation of the constitutional laws enacted by Congress." Further, Marshall states, "But this question is not left to mere reason: the people have, in express terms, decided it, by saying, 'this constitution, and the laws of the United states, which shall be made in pursuance thereof, shall be the supreme law of the land.'" This is the Supremacy clause of the Constitution. Marshall continued by stating that if the state was allowed to tax a bank that Congress could lawfully create, the state could interfere with the operation of the bank. If laws of Congress and the Constitution were truly supreme to those of the state, then the state should not be able to interfere with a bank created by those laws.

SIGNIFICANCE:

In McCulloch v. Maryland, the broad interpretation given to the "necessary and proper" clause expanded the powers of Congress beyond those expressly set out in the Constitution. It enabled Congress to become a strong national government and address the needs of the nation when necessary.

The interpretation given to the Supremacy clause also strengthened Congress, for it meant that an individual state, unhappy with a law passed by Congress, could not take steps to interfere with the operation of the law within its boundaries.

Plessy v Ferguson (1896)

  • Argued April 13, 1896
  • Decided May 18, 1896

SITUATION:

In 1890 the state of Louisiana passed a law that required railroads to provide "equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races." Passengers could only sit in the cars of the train assigned to members of their race. If they refused to sit in the assigned seats, a railroad officer was given the power to make that passenger get off the train. The passenger could also be charged with a crime for a violation of this law.

In 1892, Homer Adolph Plessy, who was one eighth African-American, sat in a whites-only car on a train. When a conductor ordered Plessy to give up the seat, Plessy refused, was arrested and removed from the train. At the trial, the local magistrate found him guilty of violating state law and sentenced him to jail. On appeal, the Louisiana State Supreme Court found that the 1890 law and Plessy's sentence were legal. Plessy then appealed his case to the United States Supreme Court.

CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION:

  1. Did the Louisiana law requiring racial segregation on trains violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution?

DECISION: (7-1; one justice absent):

Justice Henry Brown wrote the opinion of the court. He acknowledged that the purpose of the 14th Amendment was to enforce the absolute equality of the races before the law. However, he said "it could not have been intended to enforce social, as distinguished from political equality." Therefore, Justice Brown said the case reduced itself to a determination of whether the statute is a reasonable regulation. Furthermore, when making this determination, the court should give weight to the decision of the legislature. Justice Brown concluded that it was reasonable. He stated that if the enforced separation is considered a badge of inferiority, it is "solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it." Finally, Justice Brown rejected the idea that "prejudice [could] be overcome by legislation."

DISSENT:

Justice John M Harlan, a former slave owner, dissented from the Court's opinion in Plessy v Ferguson. He said, "But in view of the Constitution ... there is no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. ... Our constitution is color-blind. ... In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. ... It is therefore regrettable that this [court] ... has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a State to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race."

SIGNIFICANCE:

Though the term was not used by the court, the ruling in Plessy v Ferguson became known as the "separate but equal doctrine." It justified racial segregation in many states for almost 60 years. It was not until 1954 that the Court reversed its decision in Plessy v Ferguson in the case of Brown v Board of Education.

Brown v Board of Education (1954)

  • Argued December 8, 1952
  • Reargued December 7, 1953
  • Decided May 17, 1954

SITUATION:

For many years cases had been litigated over whether the "separate but equal" facilities for African-Americans were truly equal. In a number of these cases, including a lawsuit against the University of Maryland School of Law, states had been forced to admit African-Americans into colleges and graduate schools. But in the early 1950s, cases from Delaware, Kansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia were heard disputing the legality of laws requiring segregated public schools. The Supreme Court heard these cases together as Brown v Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall, lead attorney for the plaintiffs and later a Supreme Court Justice, argued that segregated schools could never be equal and that such schools violated the Equal Protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment.

CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION:

  1. Does the segregation of children on the basis of race in public schools violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment?

DECISION (9-0):

Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court. He began by saying that the intent of the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment could not be determined, especially when looking at public education. There were very few public schools of any kind in 1868. Therefore, Justice Warren determined, public education has to be considered in today's terms. That is the only way a question about equal protection could be answered honestly.

Justice Warren went on to apply a decision from a case in the state of Kansas itself. In that case the state court decided that segregated schools create a feeling of inferiority in African-American children. The Kansas judge used a psychological study that found that "segregation of white and colored children [hurts] the colored children. ... [It] deprives them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system." The court agreed with this statement. They concluded that "[a]ny language in Plessy v Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected. ... In the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal ... [and thus the plaintiffs had been] deprived of the equal protection of the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."

SIGNIFICANCE:

Brown v Board of Education overturned Plessy v Ferguson with regards to public education and became the precedent for removing state supported segregation in other areas.

Gideon v Wainwright (1963)

  • Argued January 15, 1963
  • Decided March 18, 1963

SITUATION:

Clarence Earl Gideon was arrested in Florida and charged with breaking and entering into a pool hall. This was a felony. Gideon could not afford to hire a lawyer to defend him, so he asked the court to appoint an attorney to represent him. The court refused, stating that it only had an obligation to appoint attorneys for poor defendants in death penalty cases. Gideon conducted his own defense at trial. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. While in prison, Gideon appealed his guilty verdict to the United States Supreme Court. On appeal, Gideon claimed that the failure of the trial court to provide him with an attorney violated the protections in the 6th and 14th Amendments.

CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION:

  1. Did the state court’s refusal to appoint counsel for Gideon violate his right to a fair trial and deprive him of due process of law as set forth in the 6th and 14th Amendments?

DECISION (9-0):

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Hugo Black said that the Court had erred in its previous decision Betts v Brady (1942), which limited the appointment of counsel to death penalty cases. Black said, "[R]eason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him." The Court reversed the decision of the Florida courts and sent the case back to trial court for a new trial. At this trial, Gideon was acquitted of the charges.

SIGNIFICANCE:

In Gideon v Wainwright, through the 14th Amendment, the protections of the 6th Amendment were extended to the states for all felony cases. This meant that states were required to appoint counsel for all poor defendants in felony cases.

Miranda v Arizona (1966)

  • Argued February 28, 1966
  • Decided June 13, 1966

SITUATION:

In 1963, Ernesto Miranda was arrested and taken to a Phoenix police station. There he was questioned by two police officers for two hours. The police officers never advised Miranda that he had a right to have an attorney present at the interrogation. Miranda signed a confession in which he admitted to kidnapping and rape. The confession was admitted into evidence at his trial and Miranda was convicted and sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison. Miranda's case was appealed to the Supreme Court, where it was heard together with three other cases involving the rights of individuals taken into police custody.

CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION:

  1. Does the police practice of interrogating individuals without notifying them of their right to counsel and their protection against self-incrimination violate the 5th Amendment?

DECISION (5-4):

Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion for the majority. The Court held that a confession could not be used as evidence unless efforts were made before the questioning to protect suspects against self-incrimination. Warren wrote, "At the outset, if a person in custody is to be subjected to interrogation, he must be informed in clear ... terms that he has a right to remain silent." Warren went on to say, "The warning of the right to remain silent must be accompanied by the explanation that anything can and will be used against the individual in court ... [A]n individual held for interrogation must be clearly informed that he has a right to consult with a lawyer and have that lawyer present during interrogation." Finally, the Court said that if at any time before or during the interrogation the individual indicates he wishes to remain silent, the questioning must stop.

SIGNIFICANCE:

The decision in Miranda v Arizona was controversial when it was handed down and remains so even today. However, in Dickerson v U.S. (2000), Chief Justice Rehnquist stated in an opinion that upheld the Miranda warnings that "Miranda has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture."

Tinker v Des Moines Board of Education (1969)

  • Argued November 12, 1968
  • Decided February 24, 1969

SITUATION:

In December 1965, three public school students in Des Moines, Iowa, including John and Mary Beth Tinker, planned to protest the government's policy in Vietnam by wearing black armbands. School officials learned of the plans and developed a policy that anyone wearing an armband would be asked to remove it. Students refusing to remove the armband would be suspended. Although they were aware of the school policy, all three students chose to wear the armbands anyway. The students were suspended. They did not return to school until after New Year's Day. The parents of the students sought an injunction to prevent school officials from punishing students wearing armbands. The district court ruled that the school's policy was reasonable on order to prevent a disturbance at school. The Circuit Court agreed. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court.

CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION:

  1. Was the wearing of armbands to school in order to protest a political issue protected by the First Amendment?

DECISION (7-2):

The Supreme Court held that wearing of armbands, in a school setting, to protest a political issue was protected by the First Amendment. The Court wrote, "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Because the students engaged in a silent, peaceful protest that did not interfere with the school's work or the right of other students to be secure or left alone, the Court concluded that the students' First Amendment rights had been violated. The Court also pointed out that the school policy did not prohibit the wearing other political symbols. Thus the Court said, "Clearly the prohibition of expression of one particular opinion, at least without evidence that it is necessary to avoid material and substantial interference with schoolwork or discipline, is not constitutionally permissible."

SIGNIFICANCE:

The Tinker v. Des Moines Board of Education case established that students have First Amendment rights that can be exercised while at school. However, in Bethel School District v Fraser (1986) and Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier (1988), the Supreme Court recognized that school officials have the right to regulate the content of student speech in certain circumstances.

New Jersey v T.L.O. (1985)

  • Argued March 28, 1984
  • Reargued October 2, 1984
  • Decided January 15, 1985

SITUATION:

T.L.O. was a 14-year-old student at a New Jersey public high school. The school had specific rules against smoking in school buildings or on school property. A teacher found T.L.O. and another student smoking in the bathroom and sent her to the office of the assistant principal. T.L.O. denied that she had been smoking and the assistant Principal searched her purse for cigarettes. In searching for the cigarettes, the Assistant principal found a package of rolling papers. Since in his experience, possession of rolling papers was indicative of marijuana use, he conducted a more thorough search of the girl's purse. During that search he found a small amount of marijuana, a pipe, a number of empty plastic bags, a large number of $1 bills, a list of students that owed her money and two letters that implicated T.L.O. in marijuana dealing. The State brought delinquency charges against T.L.O. At the hearing, T.L.O.'s attorneys claimed that the evidence could not be used because it had been found during an illegal search. They argued that the Constitution required that there be probable cause and a warrant to admit any evidence.

CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION:

  1. Did the search of T.L.O. for cigarettes and the subsequent search for drug paraphernalia violate her 4th and 14th Amendment rights?

DECISION (6-3):

Justice Byron White wrote the opinion for the Court. He first found that the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures does apply to public schools. But he and the majority of the Court believed that the warrantless search of T.L.O. was reasonable. Justice White said that officials for public schools do not have to meet the same standards as the police when conducting searches. The Court saw this as balancing the rights of the students to privacy with the responsibilities of the schools to maintain order and discipline so that learning can occur. To achieve this balance, the court devised a two-part test for conducting legal searches at schools. First, was the search justified in its inception? Second, was the search as conducted reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the search in the first place? Noting that the police must have solid information to obtain a search warrant, the court believed that the same rules were not necessary for schools. Rather, for school officials to search a student they do not have to obtain a search warrant nor have probable cause before conducting a search, but they must have a reasonable suspicion that a school rule has been violated.

SIGNIFICANCE:

The New Jersey v T.L.O. case establishes, at least with regard to the 4th Amendment, that the rights of students, while at school, are not equivalent to the rights of adults. School officials only need to demonstrate "reasonable suspicion" rather than probable cause in order to legally conduct searches in the school setting.

McDonald v Chicago (2010)

  • Argued March 2, 2010
  • Decided June 28, 2010

SITUATION:

The United States Supreme Court decided the case of United States v Heller in 2008, holding that the Second Amendment applies to a handgun ban enacted in the District of Columbia because it was enacted under the authority of the federal government and that the ban violated the Second Amendment. A similar handgun ban, however, had been enacted by Chicago and another Illinois city. They believed the Second Amendment didn't apply to them, since Heller had specifically applied the Second Amendment to the federal government, not to state governments. Several people and organizations, including Otis McDonald, a retired maintenance engineer, filed lawsuits against Chicago, challenging their gun bans and claiming that the Second Amendment also applies to the states.

CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION:

  1. Did the handgun bans by Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois, violate the Second Amendment, even though it was created by an authority other than the federal government?

DECISION (5-4):

The handgun bans were struck down. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion of the Court. He argued that on the basis of Heller, the Second Amendment should be selectively incorporated where applicable to the states through the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. "It is clear that the Framers and ratifiers of the Fourteenth Amendment counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty," he wrote. "The Fourteenth Amendment makes the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms fully applicable to the States." The principle of incorporation is a bit complicated, but it basically rests on the assumption that the right being protected is "fundamental." Justice Alito used primarily historical evidence to determine how fundamental the right to possess and use firearms for lawful purposes was. But since there are civilized governments that don't give citizens that right, it could be argued that it wasn't fundamental. The dissenting opinion, in fact, rejected Justice Alito's historical perspective. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that "a rigid historical methodology is unfaithful to the Constitution's command." The Second Amendment, properly considered, he argued, did not foster equal respect for individuals, help to maintain a democratic form of government, or create functioning institutions based on a constitutional separation of powers. He therefore argued against incorporation in his dissent, which was joined by three other justices.

SIGNIFICANCE:

The McDonald v Chicago case held that the right of an individual to "keep and bear arms" protected by the 2nd Amendment is incorporated by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment and applies to the states. The decision cleared up the uncertainty left in the wake of District of Columbia v. Heller as to the scope of gun rights in regard to the states. However, it has brought on a deluge of lawsuits against states and cities in the hope of striking down various gun-control laws. The Court said McDonald didn't necessarily make every piece of gun-control legislation ever passed unconstitutional, but that hasn't stopped people from making that claim across the nation.

United States v Nixon (1974)

  • Argued July 8, 1974
  • Decided July 24, 1974 (certiorari dismissed as improvidently granted)

SITUATION:

The special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal subpoenaed certain tape recordings made of President Richard Nixon discussing the scandal with some of his advisers. The President claimed executive privilege as his basis for refusing to turn over the tapes, citing Article II of the Constitution, which grants specific privileges to the president. The president's counsel also claimed the question could not be decided in a court (i.e., it was a non-justiciable question), because it was simply an argument between two parts of the executive branch of the federal government.

CONSTITUTIONAL QUESTION:

  1. Is the President’s Article II constitutional privilege absolute?

DECISION (9-0):

Chief Justice Warren E Burger wrote the opinion for a unanimous court, exquisitely balancing Article II of the Constitution with the Fourth and Fifth amendments. The Court held that it alone has the final voice in determining constitutional questions. No person, not even the president, is completely above the law, Chief Justice Berger wrote. Specifically, the president was prohibited from using executive privilege, granted in Article II of the Constitution, as an excuse to withhold evidence that is "demonstrably relevant in a criminal trial."

SIGNIFICANCE:

The president's executive privilege is not absolute and must accommodate the demands for fair and speedy trials, in which defendants may face their accusers, in the Fourth and Fifth amendments. However, courts are not required to proceed against the president as if the president were any other citizen, as the president is entitled to great deference regarding executive claims of privilege. In addition, courts were required to review any documents or communications claimed to be privileged in the judge's chamber before presenting them as evidence in court. The Court took great care to limit its opinion, because it was getting involved in a political dispute between the president and Congress, involvement the Supreme Court did not wish to undertake. Also, President Nixon resigned 16 days later, on August 9, 1974.

References and footnotes

  1. Text of the decision is available from Cornell Law School
  2. Text of the decision is available from Cornell Law School
  3. Text of the decision is available from Cornell Law School
  4. See a report by Veronica Rose, chief analyst for the Connecticut General Assembly
  5. Text of the decision is available from Cornell Law School
  6. Text of the decision is available from Cornell Law School
  7. Full text as published in the US Register is available from Justia Law
  8. Text of the decision is available from Cornell Law School