Landmark legal cases that have changed US society

Throughout history, legal precedent has been key to the shaping of the US judicial system. This means that previous rulings play a major role in the creation of legislation and the trying of new cases.

The specifics of many laws vary from state to state. For example, there will be one set of factors constituting an ordinance violation in Illinois and a different set in Texas.

However, some past court cases — particularly those heard in the Supreme Court — have completely revolutionized the way in which our society functions throughout the country. In this article, we’ll explore just a few examples of landmark rulings that have resulted in major revisions of this kind.


Some legal precedents revolutionize how business is conducted across all states.

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824) – The regulation of commerce

This New York state case involved one steamboat operator, Aaron Ogden, taking court action against another steamboat operator, Thomas Gibbons. Ogden accused Gibbons of undercutting him while providing services in the same area.

The two held different licenses: Ogden’s was granted by New York state, while Gibbons’ was provided by the federal government.

Gibbons won the case, with the Supreme Court setting a legal precedent that Congress was at the helm of all decisions relating to interstate commerce and would take precedence over the laws of individual states regarding matters of this kind.


There have been several landmark cases throughout modern history that have significantly altered the way in which law is practiced in the US.

Miranda v. Arizona (1966) – The advisement of “Miranda rights” and Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) – The right to legal counsel

These two cases, which took place just three years apart, resulted in a significant revision of the US prosecution system.

In the case of Miranda v. the state of Arizona, Ernesto Miranda argued that his confession to an attack on a woman had been gained using unconstitutional interrogation methods. 

He argued that the arresting officers had not informed him of his right to have a legal representative present when being interviewed, and that the resulting confession was acquired unlawfully.

The Supreme Court ruled in his favor, setting a precedent that requires US police officers to inform those they are arresting of certain rights, now known as the “Miranda rights.”

These include the right to have an attorney present when being questioned, the right to remain silent and that anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.

The later Gideon v. Wainwright case involved Clarence Earl Gideon being accused of breaking and entering. He was unable to afford his own defense attorney and was refused legal representation by the state of Florida. Gideon was found guilty after attempting to represent himself, but later appealed.

The Supreme Court ruled in Gideon’s favor, affirming that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries” and instating the requirement for all states to appoint legal counsel on behalf of individuals who cannot afford their own.

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Social justice

From racial equality to marriage rights and abortion, the legal precedents in the field of social justice have resulted in major changes throughout this century and the last. 

Those planning to study to become a Juris Doctor online, through a reputable institution such as Cleveland State University (CSU), will find that social justice and civil rights are exceptionally popular subjects within legal education. CSU’s online JD degree prepares students for the field of law through a combination of online studies and integrated experiential learning opportunities. 

Brown v. the Board of Education (1954) – Racial segregation of public schools

This seminal case played a major role in the desegregation of US education facilities and was a significant stepping stone towards racial equality in the country.

Concerned that his daughter Linda’s route to school was putting her in danger as she was not permitted to attend a closer school due to its “whites only” policy, Oliver Brown led a group of parents to challenge the legislation of the time.

He cited the 14th Amendment, which states that: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”


The Supreme Court found in Brown’s favor, ruling that the segregation of schools was an example of inequality, which led to the desegregation of certain educational facilities.

Loving v. Virginia (1967), Lawrence v. Texas (2003) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) – Sex and marriage rights

The case of Loving v. the state of Virginia involved an interracial couple, married in Washington D.C., who returned to their native Virginia, where it was illegal to marry a person of a different race.

Both were handed a one-year suspended sentence. The pair sued the state, resulting in the Supreme Court finding that their sentence was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment. This led to the abolition of legislation against interracial marriage across the US.

In the case of Lawrence v. Texas, a gay male couple were arrested after being found engaged in consensual activity in Lawrence’s private residence. The “Due Process” clause of the 14th Amendment was cited, and the Supreme Court found that the couples’ right to liberty had been violated by their arrest.

Along with three other couples, James Obergefell sued Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee, stating the “Equal Protection” clause of the 14th Amendment and claiming that his same-sex marriage did not benefit from the same protection as those of opposite-sex spouses. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, paving the way for all states to recognize same-sex marriage.

Roe v. Wade (1973) and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022) – Abortion rights

One of the most famous cases in the history of the debate over female body autonomy is that of Roe v. Wade. 

Norma McCorvey sued the district attorney of Dallas County under the alias Jane Roe, stating that the Texan law criminalizing abortion unless used as a medical intervention to save the mother’s life was unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s decision could not be overruled by the state, making this a landmark case for the pro-choice movement. This decision was overturned in 2022.

Of course, there have been hundreds of other seminal rulings by the Supreme Court that have shaped US society, but all show how an individual ruling can change the way in which society operates.