Best Supreme Court cases illustrating American thought?

A friend who is a history professor posed this question: “If you had to choose one single Supreme Court decision that exemplified the best in American jurisprudential thought and elegant language, what would it be?” I asked her to clarify, and she said that she is putting together a syllabus for a class on History of American Thought, and that, because America does some if its important thinking in Supreme Court cases, these can be a good illustration of American thought (not just jurisprudence or legal thought). So she’s looking for one or more cases to include in her class reading. They should be clear and well written; illustrative of some important principle in American thought; and they should be important, in that they have impacted American thought in some way. Also, if possible, they should be recent-ish — 20th century.

It turns out, those are some daunting criteria. For instance, there are some obvious and important opinions which probably don’t meet the criteria. Brown? The decision itself says some important things well, but also totally cops out on implementation (all deliberate speed). Loving? I love the result, but it’s not particularly elegant in writing or form, the Court just ignores precedent without much explanation. Griswold? I like privacy as much as the next guy, but penumbras are a mess. Those great Holmes and Brandeis dissents? I’m not sure that they qualify; we’re looking for majority opinions here. (The same for other pithy and well-written dissents, like Scalia’s Lemon test zombie.) Clear and present danger? Err, I’m not such a big fan of the result in that case, actually. Roe? Heller? Bush v. Gore? Um, let’s posit that we want an opinion which is widely viewed as a good one; regardless of one’s views on the merits of any of those, they are all controversial enough that predictable pro and con camps would probably drown out any substantive discussion of their merits as examples of American thought. (All major opinions are probably controversial to one extent or other, but let’s try to avoid the major sound-bite hot-buttons as much as possible.)

What does this leave?

I suggested Gideon v. Wainwright. Well-written? Check. Important? Check. Widely accepted result today? Check, I think. Another possibility might by New York Times v. Sullivan, which is also good on all of these counts.

But I know I’m missing lots of obvious possibilities. What are they? Which cases am I missing? If you were putting together the History of American Thought syllabus, which case(s) would you include?

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24 Responses

  1. Gerard Magliocca says:

    How about Barnette?


  2. Chris Hammer says:

    I second Barnette and also propose the Pentagon Papers case.

  3. Joe Miller says:

    I’m going to take issue with “let’s posit that we want an opinion which is widely viewed as a good one.” An opinion many may view as wrong – perhaps now, perhaps the day it was decided – can be “a good illustration of American thought.”
    So, I would suggest Korematsu v. U.S. (1944).
    For a case focusing on the structure of federal power, it’s hard to pass over The Steel Seizure Case, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952).

  4. Joe Miller says:

    And, for a privacy combo, Katz v. United States (1967) (the phone booth case) and Kyllo v. United States (2001) (the thermal imaging case).

  5. McCulloch v. Maryland?

  6. Spencer Waller says:

    Definitely agree with comment #3 about Steel Seizure Case, particularly Jackson’s concurrence.

    Also want to recommend Black’s dissent in In Re Anastaplo for civil liberties.

  7. Howard Wasserman says:

    Definitely Sullivan and definitely Barnette. Perhaps Texas v. Johnson, although the result might be too controversial to qualify under your criteria. I would push for Brandeis’ concurrence in Whitney. I know you said majority opinions only. But fast-forward 40 years and that *is* the majority opinion for all that the First Amendment has become.

  8. Mike Rich says:

    Pennoyer v. Neff. It’s a great illustration of how cycles of oppression and abuse are passed along in American culture. Law professors haze law students with it because they were hazed with it when they were law students.

  9. Mike Rich says:

    On a more serious note, Arnstein v. Porter. The majority opinion gives a clear view on how American jurisprudence works and why some claims, no matter how crazy they are, need to get to court and at least get a chance at discovery. Beyond that, it features an amusingly written dissent and one of the parties is Cole Porter.

    Unfortunately, it’s not a Supreme Court case, only the 2nd Circuit. Still good stuff.

  10. TJ says:

    I concur with Joe Miller. Your fried did not say cases demonstrating \”good\” American legal thought. The really bad instances demonstrate influences on American legal thought as much as the really good ones. And if they are universally agreed to be bad today, you won\’t get the class distracted by controversy. I nominate Buck v. Bell, which is clearly written and very blunt.

  11. Lori Ringhand says:

    I’m with Joe M and TJ. The SCT certainly reflects American thought, and that includes the good, the bad and the ugly. Buck perfectly reflected its era, is absolutely jarring, and is written by legal hero OW Holmes – that itself carries a lesson worth learning.

  12. Paul Wolfson says:

    I think Morissette v. US is a good candidate. To me the notion that one cannot be subject to a governmental sanction unless one intentionally did something wrong strikes deep chords in American concepts of fairness, including ideas about limits on the role of government.

  13. Orin Kerr says:

    I disagree with Joe Miller. Katz and Kyllo are both difficult and unclear opinions that say little and leave their real meaning unclear: Neither case resolves more than the precise facts before it, and the precise grounds of each opinion is quite murky. I don’t think it is realistic to say that either opinion reveals “the best in American thought,” or even the best in Fourth Amendment thought in the year the opinions came out. (In 1967, for example, Warden v. Hayden seems to me far superior to Katz in concept, elegance, and execution.)

    More broadly, I question the premise that “America does some if its important thinking in Supreme Court cases.” First, the thinking in Supreme Court opinions is by Justices, not America. Second, Supreme Court opinions generally do not reveal particularly deep or important thinking. They may have useful rhetoric, or may reach a conclusion that resonates with individual Americans. But I don’t think they reveal important thinking by America.

  14. Orin Kerr says:

    Oh, and if I did have to pick such an opinion, Paul Wolfson’s suggestion of Morissette is probably as good as it gets. (And more broadly, the work of Justice Jackson is likely the most fruitful source of possibilities.)

  15. Kelo – federalism, state v. citizen…and a well-written dissent by Justice Thomas (which I thereby realize probably rules it out for many of you).

  16. Tom Shields says:

    The obvious answer should be Brown. You even said it first because you know it is! It may be a cop out on implementation like you say, but for a class on the History of American thought, it is perfect. It represents a major paradigm shift. Not only does it overturn a major decision (Plessey), but it does so unanimously. Plus, the idea of ending segregation is one of the most, if not the most significant change in American thought of the 20th century. Gideon is a good choice too, but it might be better for a more narrowly ‘legal’ perspective.

  17. Mark Edwards says:

    I’d nominate Mapp v. Ohio.

    I like it for so many reasons, but here are a few:

    (1) It walks succinctly through the long struggle the Court faced in deciding whether the specific protections of the Bill of Rights apply to the Staes through the 14th Amendment, and whether the remedies for violations adopted by federal courts apply as well.

    (2) It revolutionized Constitutional criminal procedure in the U.S. in a way that is both well-settled and, somewhat paradoxically, still controversial.

    (3) It was well-written by an unheralded Justice (Clark).

    (4) It tells an exciting story.

    (5) It was decided on grounds not raised at oral arguments or briefed by the parties.

    (6) It features, without saying so, Don King, in his first — but certainly not last — important appearance in the pageant of 20th century American life.

    Beat that.

  18. Mark Edwards says:

    I forgot to add, in my opinion, a great opinion should have a really great ‘money’ quote. Mapp’s:

    The criminal goes free, if he must, but it is the law that sets him free. Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws, or worse, its disregard of the charter of its own existence.

  19. Shon H says:

    I would suggest Blakely v. Washington. For one, like many of Justice Scalia’s opinions, it is both elegantly written and a persuasive point by point dissection of the dissenting opinions. Also, the decision raised an important subject of American law: the jury trial right (the only right contained both in the body of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights). Moreover, it was probably the most impacting criminal decision (besides Miranda) of the past 25 years.

    That being said I believe any case Paul Wolfson suggests would be a good one.

  20. Alan says:

    The popularity criterion is misplaced. A class about the history of American thought should include decisions that have fallen into heterodoxy, or that are at least controversial if not quite heterodox. The class is supposed to be “A History of American Thought,” not “A History of Such Portions of American Thought As Still Make Us Proud in the Twenty-First Century.”

    If the students can’t be pushed to evaluate the merits of the reasoning apart from their agreement or disagreement with the policy outcomes of the decisions, pray for the Republic. (Then again, the more I read articles and opinions that are clearly based on result-oriented theories, the more I think that professors and judges have the same problem as the students have.)

    Controversial decisions like United States v. Lopez and Printz v. United States would make for great assignments. Federalism is a characteristically American principle, so decisions bearing on that subject (and on the structural Constitution more broadly) should be of serious interest. INS v. Chadha and Clinton v. City of New York aren’t about federalism, but they too are very good choices because they’re about the constitutional structure of our government.

    As for what Mr. Wolfson said:

    “To me the notion that one cannot be subject to a governmental sanction unless one intentionally did something wrong strikes deep chords in American concepts of fairness, including ideas about limits on the role of government.”

    Perhaps my memory fails me, but, as I remember it, Morrisette isn’t about what you were talking about. If I recall correctly, Morissette was a case of statutory interpretation, and didn’t forbid Congress to pass strict-liability criminal statutes.

  21. Jason P says:

    Justice Jackson’s concurrence in The Steel Seizure Case is elegantly written and tells a great story of the structure of American Government within the context of a great historical event.

    I would also suggest Johnson v. M’Intosh written by Justice Marshall describing the discovery of America by the Europeans and the rights of the conqueror over the conquered

  22. Sheldon says:

    How about Reynolds v. U.S.? It’s an example of the courts trying to resolve some of the oldest (and continuous) tensions in American society – what to do with minorities and dissenters; what is the role of religion in the public sphere; etc. For the most part, the decision is easy to read; it’s been recently reaffirmed in Employment Division v. Smith; it’s relevant with respect to contemporary issues likely to be of interest to the prof.’s students (the role of government in defining marriage, the role of religions in contesting definitions of marriage, etc).

    In other words, “Reynolds is a relatively short and readable opinion (among Supreme Court opinions, that is)… It is fascinating reading.”

  23. Marc says:

    We couldn’t really be having this discussion but for Marbury v. Madison.

  24. Tona says:

    Hi all, I’m the originator of the question and this has been really enlightening to follow. Sheldon, Marc – I need something in the modern era, post-1900 anyway. I’d also consider an eloquent dissent, especially one that became a precedent in later cases. Alan – your comment about how to define such a class is spot-on; part of my goal is to push the boundaries of the canon of American intellectual history. TJ – I’m intrigued by Buck v. Bell, I sometimes have a hard time convincing students in my US history survey class that this was a real case, they think I’m pulling their leg.

    These suggestions are tremendously helpful. Keep ’em coming.