July 1, 2012 -- Last week's Supreme Court decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), the health care overhaul signed into law into 2010 and colloquially known as Obamacare, drew nationwide attention. The case, National Federation of Independent Business et al. v. Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al. (PDF), stoked passionate reactions from both supporters and opponents of the bill.
The level of attention the Supreme Court received over this case is nothing new. Throughout its history, the court has had its fair share of controversial rulings.
BLOG: What the Health Care Ruling Means
The 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison is what made the Supreme Court what it is today.
Secretary of State James Madison refused to seat a number of judicial appointees from the previous administration, leading one, William Marbury, to sue for his commission. The court sided with Madison since the law requiring him to give Marbury the post was unconstitutional.
Marbury v. Madison may not be as controversial today as other decisions in the Supreme Court's history. But by establishing the concept of "judicial review," the court essentially made one big power grab in asserting its authority among the other two branches of government.
One of the cases that helped stoke tensions between abolitionist and anti-abolitionists, Dred Scott v. Sanford, decided in 1857, determined that all blacks, both slaves and free men and women, were not citizens of the United States and therefore not offered the rights and protections of the U.S. Constitution.
Dred Scott was a slave from Virginia who had been brought to Illinois, then a free state itself. When he once again relocated to another slave state, Missouri, he sued for his freedom, stating he was entitled to it after living on free soil.
Under Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the court determined not only did Scott not have constitutional protection and therefore no right to his freedom or even to sue; the decision went even further and labeled the Missouri Compromise, passed in 1820 to designate free and slave states, unconstitutional.
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In 1896, the Supreme Court would issue a decision that would shape government policy on race relations for more than half a century.
Plessy v. Ferguson tried the case of an African-American man, named Henry Plessy, who challenged a Louisiana law restricting him to seating on a blacks-only railway car. The court's decision established that the law did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because Plessy had been afforded "equal but separate accommodations." The lone dissenter on the case, Justice John Marshall Harlan, openly questioned whether blacks-only facilities could ever be truly "equal" to those afforded to whites.
The ruling paved the way for the Jim Crow era in the south in which whites and blacks were segregated in both public institutions, such as schools, hospitals and parks, and private establishments, such as restaurants, theaters and more.
Decided on May 17, 1954, Brown v. the Board of Education was a unanimous decision that overturned the "separate, but equal" standard established by Plessy v. Ferguson. The Supreme Court determined that segregating public school along color lines was unconstitutional, violating the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In this photo, George E.C. Hayes, James M. Nabrit and Thurgood Marshall, who would eventually become a justice himself, shake hands outside the Supreme Court following the decision.
Diversity in schools might be par for the course these days, but the decision was met with staunch resistance when it was first handed done. Years after the ruling, some schools had to be forcefully desegregated because the district or state simply wasn't complying with the law. In 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who would later unsuccessfully run for president, blocked the entrance to the University of Alabama to prevent the matriculation of two black students.
On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its most controversial decision in modern history, Roe v. Wade.
The case came to the court after Norma McCorvey, who used the alias Jane Roe, sued the state of Texas, which prevented her by law from having an abortion. Under Chief Justice Warren Burger, the judges found by a seven-to-two vote that state and federal government couldn't interfere with a woman's access to abortion.
The majority opinion, written by Associate Justice Harry Blackmun, stated that a woman had a constitutional right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment when it came to her decision to have an abortion. Since the ruling, opponents of the bill, which now include McCorvey herself, question the constitutional validity of the decision and the legality of abortion.
Public opinion on the issue has fluctuated over the decades, with most recent polling showing a majority of Americans describing themselves as "pro-life" over "pro-choice," according to Gallup poll.
In 2000, the Supreme Court didn't just decide any ordinary case; they ruled on an entire election.
Bush v. Gore took the 2000 presidential election on the way to the Supreme Court following a narrow margin of victory for then Texas Gov. George W. Bush over former Vice President Al Gore. A little more than 500 votes separated them in Florida, and the case brought up a range of voting issues from confusing ballots to computer error that could have tipped the state to either candidate.
A five-to-four split decision put a halt to the manual recounts of some 175,010 votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered and ruled that the original vote tally the state posted would stand. The decision was also unusual in that all four dissenters wrote separate opinions, and the ruling itself stated that it couldn't be cited as precedent.
Opponents of the decision emphatically state that the court overreached and the recount should have been allowed to continue. Supporters point to reviews of the ballots long after the court's decision that found that Bush would have retained a narrow margin of victory even if the recount had proceeded.
In 1998, John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner (seen in this photo) were arrested for violating an anti-sodomy law in Texas. The two men were engaged in consensual sex, and sued the state for essentially outlawing homosexual intercourse.
Five years later, the case of Lawrence v. Texas was decided by the Supreme Court, striking down the Texas law by a six-to-three decision. The justices forming the majority opinion reasoned that the Fourteenth Amendment provided the plaintiffs with a right to privacy. Anti-sodomy laws in some 13 other states were invalidated by the ruling.
The case is seen as a landmark in the gay rights movement.
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Second only to the decision on health care reform, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission might be the next most controversial decision handed down during the tenure of Chief Justice John Roberts. The court found that corporations, unions and organizations had the right to spend unlimited amounts of money during a political campaign. The majority determined that organizations were entitled to the same the First Amendment protections on political speech as individuals.
The five-to-four split decision will have deep implications for this year's presidential election, the first such race since the ruling was made in 2010. Opponents of the decision, including President Barack Obama who mentioned Citizens United in his 2010 State of the Union speech, claim that it overturns over a century of campaign finance law and gives too much influence to corporate interests.
BLOG: Mother Nature Gets Her Day in Court
Pastor Fred Phelps and his congregation at the Westboro Baptist Church might be the worst possible poster children for First Amendment rights. The church is known for provocation, using national tragedies as protest events to promote their extreme religious message.
In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Snyder v. Phelps that the church had a constitutional right to demonstrate at the funeral of a Marine who died in Iraq bearing signs that read, "God hates dead soldiers," among other hateful messages.
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