Every year, the Supreme Court of the United States issues decisions on dozens of cases, but rarely do average people feel — or at least notice — a Court ruling’s impact on their daily lives. Here are 10 cases, however, that most likely affect you in a tangible way every single day.
1) West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish (1937)
Basics: Elsie Parrish worked as a chambermaid at the Cascadian Hotel in Wenatchee, Washington. Her pay was $12 a week, which was less than the $14.50 a week required by the state’s minimum wage law for women. (There was no minimum wage for men.) Parrish sued her employer, and after the state supreme court decided in her favor, the hotel owners appealed to the US Supreme Court.
Ruling: The Court ruled 5 to 4 in favor of Parrish, upholding the constitutionality of minimum wage legislation and reversing previous rulings by the Court that had struck down minimum wage laws, the previous one just a year earlier.
Impact: Helped lead to the passage of The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a national minimum wage.
How It Effects You: You don’t have to work for 35 cents an hour.
2) Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942)
Basics: Oklahoma’s Habitual Criminal Sterilization Act of 1935 allowed for sterilization to be part of sentencing for individuals convicted three or more times of “felonies involving moral turpitude” (meaning white collar crimes were excluded). Jack Skinner, having been convicted once for chicken stealing and twice for armed robbery, was sentenced to sterilization, and his appeal made it to the Supreme Court.
Ruling: The Court ruled unanimously that the Act violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because white collar criminals received preferential treatment.
Impact: The ruling largely ceased punitive sterilization and helped shed a negative light on eugenics (its use by the Nazis certainly didn’t help its popularity). At the time, not only were habitual criminals subject to sterilization, but also the mentally ill and handicapped, people with physical deformities, epileptics, the deaf and blind, and racial groups like Native Americans and African Americans — often without their knowledge. Thirty-three states had sterilization programs, and over 65,000 people were sterilized during the 20th century, about two-thirds of them before Skinner.
How It Affects You: Tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of people (possibly someone you know) may have been born who otherwise might not have had the chance.
3) Hernandez v. Texas (1954)
Basics: Mexican laborer Pete Hernandez was tried and convicted of murder by an all-white jury in Jackson County, Texas. His lawyers appealed, claiming that he didn’t receive a fair trial because persons of Mexican descent were systematically excluded from jury duty in the county. (A Mexican American had not served on a jury in the county in over 25 years.) The Texas appeals court ruled that Mexican Americans were considered Caucasians and thus were adequately represented on juries. The fact that no one with a Hispanic last name had not served on a jury in over two decades was deemed a coincidence.
The Supreme Court unanimously ordered a retrial of Hernandez, with jury selection open to all races, stating that exclusion of a particular race or ethnicity violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws.”
: Two weeks before Brown v. Board of Education (see below), this decision established that the equal protection rights of the Constitution apply to all races. Until then, the majority of civil rights cases had focused on African-American rights.
How It Affects You: States must apply the law equally to everyone (including you) and can’t give preferential treatment to one person or class of persons over another. Except celebrities.
4) Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Basics: Oliver Brown and 12 other parents in Topeka, Kansas filed a class-action lawsuit requesting the desegregation of public schools in the district. The district court ruled in favor of the board of education, stating that the segregated educational facilities for black and white students were legal because they were “separate but equal,” as required by the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. The case was brought to the Supreme Court and combined with four other similar cases challenging segregation in other states. The Kansas case, however was the only one of the five in which the separate facilities weren’t substantially unequal in quality.
Ruling: The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, stating that enforced segregation is inherently unequal and violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.
Impact: Schools in the 17 states that required segregation and the others that allowed it (only 16 expressly forbade it) were integrated, paving the way for racial integration in public transportation and other areas of life.
How It Affects You: You can freely interact with people who don’t look like you.
5) Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)
Basics: Estelle Griswold was the Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut. She gave information, instruction and medical advice to married people on contraception devices and materials, in violation of a Connecticut law forbidding the use (or facilitation of the use) of “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception.” As such, she and a colleague were arrested and fined.
Ruling: By a count of 7 to 2, the Supreme Court nullified the Connecticut law because it violated a right to privacy that’s implied in the Constitution.
Impact: Griswold set the precedent for the 1972 case Eisenstadt v. Baird, which extended the right to use contraception to unmarried people, but beyond the contraception issue, the ruling asserted that the Constitution protects a right to privacy, opening the door for a range of privacy cases, including Roe v. Wade.
How It Affects You: You don’t have 20 kids.
6) Loving v. Virginia (1967)
Basics: In 1958, interracial couple Mildred Jeter (who was black) and Richard Loving (who was white) traveled from their Virginia home to Washington, DC, to get married, because doing so in Virginia violated a state law against miscegenation. When they returned home, they were arrested and ordered to leave the state or face jail time. They moved to DC and filed a lawsuit in 1964 in hopes of returning to Virginia to see their family and friends.
Ruling: In a unanimous decision, the Court ruled that laws prohibiting marriage between races are unconstitutional because they violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Impact: The decision struck down anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia and 15 other states, and the number of interracial marriages in the US has increased by more than seven-fold since 1970, now numbering over 2 million couples.
How It Affects You: You’re free to hit on anyone in the club.
7) Stanley v. Georgia (1969)
Basics: Police searched the home of Robert Stanley looking for gambling paraphernalia, but instead they founds pornographic film reels and charged him with possession of obscene materials, a crime under Georgia law.
Ruling: The Court unanimously struck down Stanley’s conviction on grounds that state laws forbidding the mere possession in the home of materials deemed obscene violate freedoms granted in the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.
: Stanley further established an individual’s right to privacy (see also Griswold v. Connecticut), even though obscenity doesn’t enjoy protection under the First Amendment’s “free speech” and “free press” clauses.
How It Affects You: Your porn stash will only get you in trouble with your girlfriend.
8) Miller v. California (1973)
violating a California statute prohibiting the distribution of obscene material. Miller appealed, claiming that the sale and distribution of obscene materials by mail is protected under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech.
Ruling: First Amendment. Further, the justices outlined a definition for obscene material, stating that it must meet three qualifications (AKA “the Miller test”): 1) the average person would find that it appeals to the prurient interest; 2) it depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law; and 3) it lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
Impact: By providing a definition of “obscene,” Miller made it easier for states to prosecute purveyors of allegedly obscene material, effectively shifting the burden from the Supreme Court to the states. However, in reality, the increasingly loosened public morals of the “average person” during the ’70s, combined with vague stipulations such as “patently offensive” and “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” meant that obscenity convictions have been few and far between.
How It Affects You: Porn is abundant, arguably too much so.
9) Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. (1984)
Basics: After Sony released its Betamax home video cassette technology in 1975, Universal Studios and the Walt Disney Company sued, claiming that Sony should be held liable for any copyright infringement committed by people using the technology to copy movies and TV shows.
Ruling: By a 5 to 4 count, the Court ruled that the “time-shifting” (i.e., recording a TV program for later viewing) ability of video recorders is a legitimate function, and thus Sony couldn’t be held accountable if purchasers used the legitimate technology for illegitimate purposes — like infringing on the studios’ copyrights.
Impact: Although by 1984, Betamax was already well on its way to being defeated in the video tape format war by VHS, the ruling was a victory for home recording, which has grown into big business even as VHS has declined.
How It Affects You: One word: TiVo.
10) Reno v. ACLU (1997)
As part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Communications Decency Act (CDA) sought to regulate pornographic content on the Internet by outlawing the transmission or posting of “obscene or indecent” speech or images to persons under 18. A Philadelphia federal court blocked that portion of the act, claiming it infringed on First Amendment rights of free speech. The case went to the Supreme Court as Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, Janet Reno being the Attorney General of the United States at the time.
In a unanimous vote, the Court ruled that the language in the CDA was too broad and vague and infringed upon freedom of speech (granted, obscenity and child pornography still aren’t protected by the First Amendment).
Impact: Reno established that the Internet is entitled to the broad First Amendment protections of traditional print media and not to the more limited protections of broadcast media, which is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.
How It Affects You: You weren’t arrested for forwarding 2 Girls 1 Cup.