10 Influential SCOTUS Decisions You’ve Probably Never Heard Of


All eyes are on the Supreme Court this week as the decisions are reached for several highly contested court cases, from DOMA to the voting rights act.

It is nearly impossible to overstate the significance of these decisions, for within them the Supreme Court has the ability to change history.

Supreme Court decisions are woven into the very fabric of the American story. From the impact of Brown v. Board of Education on the civil rights movement, to Roe v. Wade, which has become synonymous with abortion rights — we all acknowledge that these decisions change lives.

Despite their significance, many SCOTUS decisions slip through the cracks for most of us. Below are ten of these lesser known, yet still important cases.

1. Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals - 1993: The case that lets judges act as scientists

This case set the standard for what types of expert testimony would be allowed in federal court cases, ruling that judges should act as “gatekeepers” in the court room — deciding which evidence can be admitted and which evidence is “junk science,” and must therefore be excluded. Since Daubert, industries known for creating pollution or hazardous products such as tobacco and asbestos have worked to discredit scientific findings that highlight the hazards of their products. With federal judges, rather than the scientific community, left to determine which science is “good” and which is “bad,” an increasing number of industries have been able to win their cases. Testimony that might prove the danger of these products is often not allowed in the court room, as judges, acting as “amateur scientists” withhold the scientific testimony.

2. Michael H. v. Gerald D. - 1989 - The case most likely to be resolved on Jerry Springer

This romantic brawl of a case determined that marriage ties were stronger than paternity results. The case revolved around the affairs of a woman named Carole. Carole was married to Gerald when she became pregnant with her daughter Victoria. It was later revealed that Gerald was not the father. Rather a man named Michael was. Carole left Gerald for Michael, and then left Michael for another man named Scott, before eventually remarrying Gerald. When Michael sued for visitation rights the case made it to the Supreme Court, where family ties eventually trumped biological ties, and Gerald was named the father.

3. Monell v. DSS of the City of New York - 1978 - The case that lets you stick it to the man

In the case of Monell v. The Department of Social Services, several women were forced to take maternity leave against their will, and took action, suing the Department of Social Services. The significance of this case was that it allowed local government entities to be seen as “persons” and therefore held accountable for unconstitutional acts. This has since allowed other unconstitutional rulings by local governments to be challenged.

4. Hernandez v. Texas - 1954 - The first Mexican-American civil rights case

While often overlooked in courses on civil rights and social justice, Hernandez v. Texas was a landmark case. In this case Pete Hernandez was being tried for murder by an all white jury. As no Mexican-American had served on the jury in his district for over 25 years, it was ruled that Hernandez was certainly not facing a fair trial, and that Mexican-Americans and other groups were being systematically excluded from jury selecting committees. This decision of this case granted Mexican Americans and all other racial and ethnic groups equal protection under the 14th Amendment. The case also changed the face of the civil rights movement at the time, encompassing other disadvantaged groups in the discussion of inequality.

5. Strickland v. Washington - 1983 - The case that makes it nearly impossible to ask for a retrial, even if your lawyer shows up drunk

In Strickland v. Washington, David Strickland was sentenced to death. He sought a to be re-tried, claiming that his lawyer had made minimal effort to prove his innocence, denying him “effective assistance” of counsel, and therefore denying him his sixth amendment right to a fair trial. The Supreme Court denied his case, ruling that defendants cannot ask for a new trial unless they can prove the outcome would be different with a competent lawyer. This has led to instances where individuals could not ask for a retrial even if their lawyer showed up drunk, fell asleep during the trial, or was openly racist.

6. First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti - 1978 - The case that let corporations funnel money into politics

This case essentially declared, much like Mitt Romney, that corporations are “persons” and therefore allowed to contribute to political funds. Originally Massachusetts had a law that prohibited corporations from spending money to influence votes on anything other than issues that directly affected the corporation. The First National Bank opposed this, wanting to influence votes related to tax rates. Ultimately the Supreme Court decided that corporations have right to influence the political process, and that there was no evidence that wealthy corporations would drown out the voices of individual citizens. This case opened the gates for increased corporate spending on political issues.

7. PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin - 2001 - The case that determined the future of golfing

This case came about when professional golfer Casey Martin had difficulties walking due to a disability, and thus asked to ride a golf cart between holes. The PGA refused to let him do so, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The case was influential in that it upheld and further strengthened the Americans with Disabilities Act, and even proved to be entertaining, due to Justice Scalia’s delivery. Said Scalia, “I am sure that the Framers of the Constitution ... fully expected that sooner or later the paths of golf and government, the law and the links, would once again cross, and that the judges of this august Court would some day have to wrestle with that age-old jurisprudential question, for which their years of study in the law have so well prepared them: Is someone riding around a golf course from shot to shot really a golfer?”

8. Buckley v. Valeo - 1976 - The case that let politicians bling out during campaigns

After the scandals of Watergate, Congress had set up limits on campaign expenditures as a means of reducing corruption. Buckley v. Valeo overturned this, and the Supreme Court ruled to strike down limits on campaign expenditures, giving a permanent leg up to wealthy candidates. This case helped to set the course for the ruling on Citizens United in 2010, and is seen by many as the first step in the dismantling of a fair campaign process.

9. Eisenstadt v. Baird - 1972 - The case that protected us singles

Eisenstadt v. Baird is a case that is well known amongst feminists but not the majority of Americans. In this landmark case the Supreme Court ruled that a Massachusetts law that banned contraceptives for unmarried couples was unconstitutional. It was a ruling that allowed single women significantly more freedom over their reproductive health.

10. Schenck v. United States - 1919 - The case that allowed for years of censorship

In this case Charles Schenck was arrested for distributing material calling for people to oppose the draft during World War I. Schenck held that it was his First Amendment right to distribute this material, yet the Supreme Court famously noted that, just as one could not yell “fire” in a theatre, so too could Schenck not distribute material that would incite “substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” This paved the way for various other forms of censorship, until it was overturned in 1969.