The Supreme Court and Civil Rights

The United States Supreme Court protects the individual rights enumerated in the Constitution of the United States. This means that when states enact bigoted laws to prevent certain groups from maintaining their basic rights, the Court can strike those laws down as being “unconstitutional”

The civil rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's provided a model that other groups have used to extend civil rights and promote equal justice. The NAACP used America’s own laws from the Constitution to challenge the status quo and win victories against racist laws and policies. This began with the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 that overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case regarding “separate but equal” facilities for Blacks and White people. In 1962, the Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional for transportation facilities like bus and train stations to be racially segregated in the case of Bailey v. Patterson. In 1967, the Court heard the case of Loving v. Virginia and held that state laws prohibiting interracial marriage are unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court has also identified that people have a constitutional basis for a right to privacy that is protected from government interference. In 1973, this right to privacy was held to protect a woman’s right to abortion in the case of Roe v. Wade.

Most recently, in 2015 the Court held that same-sex couples have the fundamental right to get married, which may not be abridged by state laws in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision.

In addition to saying laws are unconstitutional, the Supreme Court can invalidate acts and executive actions that the justices agree exceed the authority granted to government officials by the Constitution. This has occurred in recent reviews of presidential executive orders and actions.

ince the civil rights movement, diversity has grown on the Supreme Court itself. The membership of the United States Supreme Court has included women and minorities such as Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Clarence Thomas.

In 1967, Thurgood Marshall became the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court. He first gained fame as the lawyer for the NAACP in the Brown v. Board of Education case. He served on the Supreme Court until 1991 when his seat was filled by Clarence Thomas, the 2nd African-American justice.

The first female Supreme Court justice was Sandra Day O'Connor, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Since then there have been 3 more women to serve as justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic justice when she was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009.

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