Supreme Court, civil rights, landmark cases, equality, justice, judicial power
Civil Rights History

The Supreme Court and Civil Rights


The United States Supreme Court has played an indispensable role in shaping the civil rights landscape of the nation. Its decisions, often coming at pivotal moments in American history, have either advanced or hindered the rights of marginalized communities. Here, we will delve deep into the journey of the Supreme Court’s rulings on civil rights, highlighting its impact and evolution over time.

Early Interpretations

  • Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857): One of the most infamous decisions in the Court’s history, it ruled that African Americans, whether enslaved or free, could not be American citizens and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court.

The Reconstruction Era

Following the Civil War, the Reconstruction Amendments (13th, 14th, and 15th) were ratified. However, the Supreme Court’s narrow interpretation of these amendments limited their effectiveness in protecting civil rights.

  • The Civil Rights Cases (1883): The Court held that the 14th Amendment only provided protection from government violations of civil rights, not individual acts of discrimination.

The Era of Segregation

  • Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): This landmark ruling upheld state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities under the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

The Winds of Change

  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954): Overturning Plessy, this unanimous decision declared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, marking the beginning of the end of legalized segregation.

Civil Rights Movement Era

Amid the growing Civil Rights Movement, the Supreme Court reinforced civil rights through several key decisions:

  • Loving v. Virginia (1967): This ruling declared laws prohibiting interracial marriage unconstitutional.
  • Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964): The Court upheld the Civil Rights Act of 1964, emphasizing Congress’s power to combat racial discrimination.

Gender and Civil Rights

  • Reed v. Reed (1971): Marking the first time the Court applied the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to combat gender discrimination, this ruling set the stage for further decisions expanding women’s rights.

Civil Rights in Modern Times

As the definition of civil rights has expanded, the Court has been at the center of debates regarding LGBTQ+ rights, disability rights, and more:

  • Obergefell v. Hodges (2015): This landmark ruling legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act Cases: The Court has frequently weighed in on cases involving the ADA, refining the scope and reach of protections for individuals with disabilities.

Controversies and Setbacks

Not all decisions have expanded civil rights. Some, like Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which weakened parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, have been seen by many as setbacks in the struggle for comprehensive civil rights.

The Genesis: The Bill of Rights and Civil Liberties

While not exclusively tied to civil rights as we understand them today, foundational rulings on the First Amendment and other elements of the Bill of Rights laid the groundwork for the Court’s role in protecting individual liberties.

  • Gitlow v. New York (1925): This case began the process of “incorporation,” where the Court held that state laws must also uphold the free speech clause of the First Amendment.

Immigration and Civil Rights

  • Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886): The Court unanimously ruled that non-citizens had equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment, providing a foundation for the rights of immigrants in subsequent cases.

Prisoners’ Rights

The Supreme Court also tackled the issue of prisoners’ civil rights, emphasizing that incarceration doesn’t strip away all constitutional protections.

  • Cooper v. Pate (1964): The Court ruled that prisoners could challenge the conditions of their confinement, leading to a surge of litigation to improve prison conditions.

Expansion of Search and Seizure Protections

  • Mapp v. Ohio (1961): A landmark ruling where evidence obtained illegally by the police cannot be used in a state criminal trial, reinforcing the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Affirmative Action and the Court

The Court’s decisions on affirmative action have influenced how institutions, especially educational ones, address historical racial inequities.

  • Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978): While the Court ruled that specific racial quotas were unconstitutional, it also said race could be one of the multiple factors considered in college admissions.

Rights of the LGBTQ+ Community

  • Romer v. Evans (1996): Striking down a Colorado amendment that prevented protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation, the Court set the stage for future LGBTQ+ rights cases.
  • Lawrence v. Texas (2003): Decriminalizing same-sex intimacy, the Court overruled its previous decision in Bowers v. Hardwick.


The Supreme Court’s role in interpreting and shaping civil rights in the U.S. is undeniable. While it has delivered landmark rulings advancing these rights, it has also issued decisions that hindered progress. As societal views on civil rights continue to evolve, the Court remains a vital institution in determining the trajectory of civil rights in the nation. The narrative of civil rights in America is intrinsically linked with the decisions of the Supreme Court.