The Supreme Court’s function is to act as a check on the powers of the legislature, the president, and the state governments of the U.S. The role of the judiciary in general is to ensure that laws being passed are in full compliance with the Constitution or whatever other governing documents are relevant to the case. Because the government by nature cannot be compliant with the Constitution all of the time—and indeed, sometimes goes out of its way to defy the Constitution’s edicts—there have been a number of court cases that have fundamentally reshaped how Americans live their lives.
Two decisions of the twentieth century, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Roe v. Wade, resulted in great changes to how American society was laid out and how Americans viewed themselves. The former case formally desegregated school systems across the South, while the latter made abortion legal across the country. By examining these cases, we can derive a better idea of how they have impacted American society to the present day.
Brown v. Board of Education was a case decided in 1954, when Earl Warren was serving as chief justice and Dwight Eisenhower was president. At the heart of the case were the segregated school systems that were used in the South and other states at the time, where whites and blacks were sent to separate schools. Under the Plessy v. Ferguson case decided in 1896, the Supreme Court had ruled that segregated school systems were legal provided that the systems were “equal”; i.e. the black schools were at the same quality as white schools. In practice, this was almost never the case, and the plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education, Oliver Brown, brought suit based on the fact that his daughter was forced to attend a blacks-only school that was further away than a whites-only school near their house. The Supreme Court ruled that separate facilities were a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, overruling the Plessy v. Ferguson decision and ending school segregation. The long-term effect of Brown v. Board of Education was that schools and other facilities in the U.S. were fully racially integrated, ending the legacy of Jim Crow laws that had existed in the South since the Civil War.
Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973 during the tenures of Chief Justice Warren Burger and President Richard Nixon, legalized abortion in the U.S. The case revolved around an anonymous woman, referred to as “Jane Roe,” who had sought an abortion in violation of Texas laws. The court ruled that abortion laws of the type that were common in the U.S. at the time were a violation of the right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, effectively nullifying all existing abortion laws. Roe v. Wade’s legacy is that a bitter abortion debate rages in the U.S. to this day, with Republican lawmakers often seeking to restrict abortion and Democrats fighting those laws. Additionally, when presidents nominate Supreme Court justices, one of the litmus tests applied to them is their position on Roe v. Wade, allowing the public to gauge whether they would work to overturn it or keep it in place.
The Supreme Court’s rulings on various laws have had a large impact on how Americans live to this day. Decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade have fundamentally altered the country’s social landscape, giving Americans more freedom and liberating minorities from oppressive, racist laws. It is all but certain that the Supreme Court will continue to play a large role in the U.S. in the future.