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?