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Key Supreme Court Decisions

No review of U.S. history (or the AP U.S. History test) would be complete without an assessment of important Supreme Court decisions. The U. S. Supreme Court is the sometimes overlooked third branch of national government that determines what is legal; it is the last word on the law of the land.

Being able to reference Supreme Court decisions is impressive evidence of your mastery of U.S. history on the AP exam. The Supreme Court is the sometimes overlooked third branch of national government that determines what is legal.

MARBURY V. MADISON (1803)

In this early decision, the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Marshall, found that the court has the final word on whether any federal law is constitutional. The court refused to order that Marbury be awarded a federal legal job because the law under which he had been appointed was unconstitutional. Later this authority was extended to state and local laws.

MCCULLOCH V. MARYLAND (1819)

This case established that federal law trumps state law. Maryland wanted to slap a state tax on the National Bank established by the federal government. John Marshall found that the feds had the power to set up a bank under the Necessary and Proper Clause of the Constitution and that states could no more tax the federal bank than they could tax the army.

GIBBONS V. OGDEN (1824)

This decision states that only the feds can regulate business between the states ("interstate commerce"). New York tried to set steamboat guru Robert Fulton as the only guy who could run power boats between New York and New Jersey (or license others, like Ogden, to do so). Not fair, said the court; anything that runs between states is the business of the feds. When they got around to it 140 years later, this principle allowed Congress to require civil rights in planes, trains, hotels, and restaurants.

 
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