The ACLU's Most Important U.S.Supreme Court Victories
The most important United States Supreme Court victories involving the ACLU, either as direct counsel or as a Friend of the Court from 1920s to 1990s.14 min read
The ACLU's Most Important U.S. Supreme Court Victories
The most important United States Supreme Court victories involving the ACLU, either as direct counsel or as a Friend of the Court:
1925 Gitlow v. New York
Our first Supreme Court landmark. Though upholding the defendant's conviction for distributing his call to overthrow the government, the Court held, for the first time, that the Fourteenth Amendment "incorporates" the free speech clause of the First Amendment and is, therefore, applicable to the states.
1927 Whitney v. California
Though the Court upheld a conviction for membership in a group that advocated the overthrow of the state, Justice Brandeis explained, in a separate opinion, that under the "clear and present danger test" the strong presumption must be in favor of "more speech, not enforced silence." That view, which ultimately prevailed, laid the groundwork for modern First Amendment law.
1931 Stromberg v. California
The ACLU argued successfully that the conviction of a communist for displaying a red flag should be overturned because it was based on a state law that was overly vague, in violation of the First Amendment.
1932 Powell v. Alabama
This first of the "Scottsboro" cases to reach the high Court resulted in the decision that eight African Americans accused of raping two white women lacked effective counsel at their trial — a denial of due process. This case marked the first time constitutional standards were applied to state criminal proceedings.
1935 Patterson v. Alabama
In this second "Scottsboro" decision, the Court sent the defendant's case back to state court on the ground that he had been denied a fair trial by the exclusion of African Americans from the jury list.
1937 DeJonge v. Oregon
A landmark First Amendment case, in which the Court held that the defendant's conviction under a state criminal syndicalism statute merely for attending a peaceful Communist Party rally violated his free speech rights.
1938 Lovell v. Griffin
The Court held, in this case involving Jehovah's Witnesses, that a local ordinance in Georgia prohibiting the distribution of "literature of any kind" without a City Manager's permit, violated the First Amendment.
1939 Hague v. CIO
An important First Amendment case in which the Court recognized a broad freedom to assemble in public forums, such as "streets and parks," by invalidating the repressive actions of Jersey City's anti-union Mayor, "Boss" Hague.
1941 Edwards v. California
In this major victory for poor people's right to travel from one state to another, the Court struck down an "anti-Okie" law that made it a crime to transport indigents into California.
1943 West Virginia v. Barnette
A groundbreaking decision, made more resonant by its issuance in wartime. The Court championed religious liberty with its holding that a state could not force Jehovah's Witness children to salute the American flag.
1944 Smith v. Allwright
An early civil rights victory that invalidated, under the Fifteenth Amendment, the intentional exclusion of African Americans from Texas' "white primary" on the ground that primaries are central to the electoral process even though the Democratic Party is a private organization.
1946 Hannegan v. Esquire
A major blow against censorship. The Court severely limited the Postmaster General's power to withhold mailing privileges for allegedly "offensive" material.
1947 Everson v. Board of Education
A trailblazer: The Court found school boards' reimbursement of the public transportation costs incurred by parents whose children attended parochial schools constitutional, but Justice Black's statement — "In the words of Jefferson, the clause...was intended to erect a `wall of separation between church and State'..." — was the Court's first major utterance on the meaning of Establishment Clause.
1948 Shelley v. Kraemer
An important civil rights decision that invalidated restrictive covenants — contractual agreements between white homeowners in a residential area barring the sale of houses to black people.
1949 Terminiello v. Chicago
Protection for offensive speech expanded with the Court's exoneration of an ex-priest convicted of disorderly conduct for giving a racist, anti-semitic speech that "invited dispute." Justice William O. Douglas, for the Court, noted that "the function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute."
1952 Rochin v. California
Reversing the conviction of a man whose stomach had been forcibly pumped for drugs by a doctor at the behest of police, the Court ruled that the Due Process Clause outlaws "conduct that shocks the conscience."
1952 Burstyn v. Wilson
Artistic freedom triumphed when the Court overruled its 1915 holding that movies "are a business, pure and simple," and decided that New York State's refusal to license "The Miracle" violated the First Amendment. The state censor had labeled the film "sacrilegious."
1954 Brown v. Board of Education
In perhaps the most far-reaching decision of this century, the Court declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional and overruled the "separate but equal" doctrine announced in its infamous 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.
1957 Watkins v. United States
Under the First Amendment, the Court imposed limits on the investigative powers of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, which had found a labor leader in contempt for refusing to answer questions about his associates' membership in the Communist Party.
1958 Kent v. Dulles
The Court ruled that the State Department had exceeded its authority in denying artist Rockwell Kent a passport because he refused to sign a "noncommunist affidavit." The right to travel, said the Court, is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
1958 Speiser v. Randall
Arguing before the Court on his own behalf, ACLU lawyer Lawrence Speiser won his challenge to a California law requiring that veterans sign a loyalty oath to qualify for a property tax exemption.
1958 Trop v. Dulles
An American stripped of his citizenship for being a deserter in World War II suffered cruel and unusual punishment, said the Court, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
1961 Mapp v. Ohio
A landmark, in which the Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment's Exclusionary Rule, first applied to federal law enforcement officers in 1914, applied to state and local police as well.
1961 Poe v. Ullman
Though unsuccessful, this challenge to Connecticut's ban on contraceptive sales set the stage for the Griswold decision of 1965. In a 33-page dissent, Justice John Harlan argued that the challenged law was "an intolerable invasion of privacy in the conduct of one of the most intimate concerns of an individual's private life."
1962 Engel v. Vitale
In an 8-1 decision, the Court struck down the New York State Regent's "nondenominational" school prayer, holding that "It is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers."
1963 Abingdon School District v. Schempp
Building on Engel in another 8-1 decision, the Court struck down Pennsylvania's in-school Bible-reading law as a violation of the First Amendment.
1963 Gideon v. Wainwright
An indigent drifter from Florida made history when, in a handwritten petition, he persuaded the Court that poor people had the right to a state-appointed lawyer in criminal cases.
1964 Escobedo v. Illinois
Invoking the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, the Court threw out the confession of a man whose repeated requests to see his lawyer, throughout many hours of police interrogation, were ignored.
1964 New York Times v. Sullivan
A victory for freedom of the press. Public officials could not recover damages for defamation, ruled the Court, unless they could prove that a newspaper had impugned them with "actual malice." A city commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, had sued over publication of a full-page ad written by civil rights activists.
1964 Jacobellis v. Ohio
Justice Potter Stewart's famous statement that, although he could not define "obscenity," he "knew it when he saw it," crowned the Court's overturning of a cinema owner's conviction for showing "The Lovers," by Louis Malle.
1964 Reynolds v. Sims
An historic civil rights decision that applied the "one person, one vote" formula to state legislative districts, and that was regarded by Chief Justice Earl Warren to be the most important decision rendered during his tenure.
1965 U.S. v. Seeger
In one of the first anti-Vietnam War decisions, the Court extended conscientious objector status to those who do not necessarily believe in a supreme being, but who oppose war based on sincere beliefs that are equivalent to religious faith.
1965 Lamont v. Postmaster General
A unanimous Court found unconstitutional, under the First Amendment, a challenged Cold War law that required the Postmaster General to detain and destroy all unsealed mail from abroad deemed to be "communist political propaganda — unless the addressee requested delivery in writing.
1965 Griswold v. Connecticut
Among the 20th century's most influential decisions. It invalidated a Connecticut law forbidding the use of contraceptives on the ground that a right of "marital privacy," though not specifically guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, is protected by "several fundamental constitutional guarantees."
1966 Miranda v. Arizona
This famous decision established the "Miranda warnings," a requirement that the police, before interrogating suspects, must inform them of their rights. The Court embraced the ACLU's amicus argument that a suspect in custody has both a Sixth Amendment right to counsel and a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
1966 Bond v. Floyd
The Court ordered Georgia's legislature to seat the duly elected state senator, Julian Bond, a civil rights activist denied his seat for publicly supporting Vietnam War draft resisters. Criticizing U.S. foreign policy, said the Court, does not violate a legislator's oath to uphold the Constitution.
1967 Keyishian v. Board of Regents
A Cold War-inspired law that required New York public school teachers to sign a loyalty oath fell as a violation of the First Amendment. The decision, capping off a series of unsuccessful challenges to both federal and state loyalty and security programs, rejected the doctrine that public employment is a "privilege" to which government can attach whatever conditions it pleased.
1967 In re Gault
The most important landmark for juveniles, it established specific due process requirements for state delinquency proceedings and stated, for the first time, the broad principle that young persons have constitutional rights.
1967 Loving v. Virginia
A civil rights landmark that invalidated the anti-miscegenation laws of Virginia and 15 other southern states. The Court ruled that criminal bans on interracial marriage violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and "the freedom to marry," which the Court called "one of the basic civil rights of man"(sic).
1968 Epperson v. Arkansas
The Court ruled that Arkansas had violated the First Amendment, which forbids official religion, with its ban on teaching "that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals."
1968 Levy v. Louisiana
The Court invalidated a state law that denied an illegitimate child the right to recover damages for a parent's death. The ruling established the principle that the accidental circumstance of a child's birth does not justify denials of rights.
1968 King v. Smith
The court invalidated a "man in the house" rule that denied welfare to children whose mother was living with a man, unmarried. The decision benefited an estimated 500,000 poor children, who had previously been excluded from aid.
1968 Washington v. Lee
Alabama statutes requiring racial segregation in the state's prisons and jails were declared unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.
1969 Brandenburg v. Ohio
After the ACLU's 50-year struggle against laws punishing political advocacy, the Court now adopted our view of the First Amendment — that the government could only penalize direct incitement to imminent lawless action — and invalidated, in one fell swoop, the Smith Act and all state sedition laws restricting radical political groups.
1969 Tinker v. Des Moines
A landmark lift for symbolic speech and students' rights. The Court invalidated the suspension of public school students for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, writing that students did not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
1970 Goldberg v. Kelly
Setting in motion what has been called the "procedural due process revolution," the Court ruled that welfare recipients were entitled to notice and a hearing before the state could terminate their benefits.
1971 Cohen v. California
Reversed the conviction of a man who allegedly disturbed the peace by wearing a jacket that bore the words, "Fuck the draft," while walking through a courthouse corridor. The Court rejected the notion that the state can prohibit speech just because it is "offensive."
1971 U.S. v. New York Times
The Pentagon Papers, a landmark among prior restraint cases. The leaking of the Papers to the press for publication by Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department official, did not, said the Court, justify an injunction against publication on national security grounds.
1971 Reed v. Reed
A breakthrough women's rights decision that struck down a state law giving automatic preference to men over women as administrators of decedents' estates. For the first time, the Court ruled that sex-based — like race-based — classifications violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
1971 U.S. v. Vuitch
The Court's first abortion rights case, involving a doctor's appeal of his conviction for performing an illegal abortion. The Court upheld the constitutionality of the statute used to convict, but expanded the "life and health of the woman" concept to include psychological well-being, and ruled that the prosecution must prove the abortion was not necessary for a woman's physical or mental health.
1972 Eisenstadt v. Baird
Extending Griswold from 1965, this decision overturned the conviction of a reproductive rights activist who had given an unmarried woman in Massachusetts a contraceptive device. The Court held that allowing distribution of contraceptives to married, but not unmarried, people violated the Equal Protection Clause.
1972 Furman v. Georgia
In this seminal case, the Court found that the "arbitrary and capricious" application of state death penalty statutes violated the Eighth Amendment's stricture against cruel and unusual punishment. Hundreds of executions were held up while states tried to fashion new laws that would pass constitutional muster.
1973 Frontiero v. Richardson
Another victory for women's rights. The Court struck down a federal law that would not permit a woman in the armed forces to claim her husband as a "dependent" unless he depended on her for more than half of his support, while a serviceman could claim "dependent" status for his wife regardless of actual dependency.
1973 Holtzman v. Schlesinger
A dramatic lawsuit, brought by the ACLU for a New York congresswoman, to halt the bombing of Cambodia as an unconstitutional Presidential usurpation of Congress's authority to declare war. After a federal order to stop the bombing was stayed on appeal, the ACLU sent a lawyer across country to the remote vacation hideaway of Justice William O. Douglas — who vacated the stay and, though later overruled, succeeded in halting the bombing for a few hours.
1973 Roe v. Wade/ Doe v. Bolton
One of the Court's most significant decisions, Roe erased all existing criminal abortion laws and recognized a woman's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. In Doe, the companion case, the Court ruled that whether an abortion is "necessary" is the attending physician's call, to be made in light of all factors relevant to a woman's well-being.
1974 U.S. v. Nixon
This test of Presidential power involved Nixon's effort to withhold crucial Watergate tapes from Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski. In the only amicus brief filed, the ACLU argued: "There is no proposition more dangerous to the health of a constitutional democracy than the notion that an elected head of state is above the law and beyond the reach of judicial review." The Court agreed and ordered the tapes handed over.
1975 Goss v. Lopez
A victory for students' rights that invalidated a state law authorizing a public school principal to suspend a student for up to 10 days without a hearing. The Court ruled that students are entitled to notice and a hearing before a significant disciplinary action can be taken against them.
1975 O'Connor v. Donaldson
The Court's first ruling on the rights of mental patients supported a non-violent man who had been confined against his will in a state hospital for 15 years. Mental illness alone, said the Court, could not justify "simple custodial confinement" on an indefinite basis.
1976 Buckley v. Valeo
Freedom of speech and association won a partial victory in this challenge to the limits on campaign spending imposed by amendments to the Federal Elections Campaign Act. The Court struck down the Act's restrictions on spending "relative to a candidate," and its required disclosure of $100-plus political contributions.
1978 Smith v. Collin
The peculiar facts of this, one of the ACLU's most controversial First Amendment lawsuits ever, attracted enormous attention: American Nazis wanted to march through a Chicago suburb, Skokie, where many Holocaust survivors lived. The ACLU's challenge to the village's ban on the march was ultimately upheld.
1978 In re Primus
An ACLU cooperating attorney — a sharecropper's daughter and the first black woman to finish the University of South Carolina Law School — was reprimanded for "improper solicitation" by the state supreme court after she encouraged some poor women to challenge the state's sterilization of welfare recipients. Exonerating her, the high Court distinguished between lawyers who solicit "for pecuniary gain"and those who solicit to "further political and ideological goals through associational activity."
1980 Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins
A victory for freedom of expression. The Court rejected shopping mall owners' claim that their property rights compelled reversal of the California Supreme Court's requirement that a shopping center allow distribution of political pamphlets on its premises.
1983 Bob Jones University v. United States
The Court rejected two fundamentalist Christian schools' claim, supported by the Reagan Justice Department, that the First Amendment guarantee of religious liberty forbade the denial of income tax exemptions to educational and religious institutions that practice racial discrimination. Instead, the Court held that the IRS is empowered to set rules enforcing a "settled public policy" against racial discrimination in education.
1985 Wallace v. Jaffree
This important church-state separation decision found Alabama's "moment of silence" law, which required public school children to take a moment "for meditation or voluntary prayer," in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
1989 Texas v. Johnson
This First Amendment invalidation of the Texas flag desecration statute provoked the newly inaugurated George Bush to propose a federal ban on flag burning or mutilation. Congress swiftly obliged, but the Court struck down the law a year later in United States v. Eichman — in which the ACLU also filed a brief. Both rulings were big victories for symbolic political speech.
1990 Cruzan v. Director of the Missouri Department of Health
The Court's first "right-to-die" case, in which the ACLU represented the family of a woman who had been in a persistent vegetative state for more than seven years. Although the Court did not go as far as the ACLU urged, it did recognize living wills as clear and convincing evidence of a patient's wishes.
1992 R.A.V. v. Wisconsin
An important First Amendment victory. A unanimous Court struck down a local law banning the display, on public or private property, of any symbol "that arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender."
1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey
A critical, though less than total, victory for reproductive freedom. While upholding parts of Pennsylvania's abortion restriction, the Court also reaffirmed the "central holding" of Roe v. Wade: that abortions performed prior to viability cannot be criminalized.
1992 Lee v. Weisman
The Court ruled that any officially-sanctioned prayer at public school graduation ceremonies violates the Establishment Clause.
1992 Hudson v. McMillian
The Court upheld a Louisiana prisoner's claim that three corrections officers had violated his Eighth Amendment right to be spared cruel and unusual punishment by beating him while he was shackled and handcuffed. The Court held that the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain is an appropriate standard in prisoners' Eighth Amendment cases.
1993 J.E.B. v. T.B.
In this women's rights victory, the Court held that a prosecutor could not use peremptory challenges to disqualify potential jurors based on their gender.
1993 Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah
A religious freedom victory for unusual, minority religions. The Court held that local ordinances adopted by the City of Hialeah, banning the ritual slaughter of animals as practiced by the Santeria religion, but permitting such secular activities as hunting and fishing, violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
1993 Wisconsin v. Mitchell
The Court agreed with the ACLU that Wisconsin's "hate crime" statute, providing for additional criminal penalties if a jury found that a defendant "intentionally selected" a victim based on "race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry," did not violate the First Amendment because the statute punished racist acts, not racist thoughts.
1994 Ladue v. Gilleo
Unanimously, the Court struck down an Ohio town's ordinance that had barred a homeowner from posting a sign in her bedroom window that said, "Say No to War in the Gulf — Call Congress Now!"
1995 Lebron v. Amtrak
Extended the First Amendment to corporations created by, and under the control of, the government in the case of an artist who argued successfully that Amtrak had been wrong to reject his billboard display because of its political message.
Copyright 1996, The American Civil Liberties Union