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Who was the greatest Supreme Court justice?

There perhaps is no clear answer to this question, just as there is no clear answer to the question of who is the greatest president. But, many believe that the greatest Supreme Court justice in history was the nation's fourth chief justice, John Marshall, who headed the Court from 1801 to 1834. Marshall wrote several seminal opinions that increased the power of the judicial branch, solidified the power of judicial review, and garnered greater respect for the Court. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote of him in her book The Majesty of the Law: "It is no overstatement to claim that Chief Justice Marshall fulfilled the Constitution's promise of an independent federal judiciary."

Construction on the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., was completed in 1935 (iStock).

Construction on the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., was completed in 1935 (iStock).

Others say that Earl Warren, who led the Court from 1954 to 1969 was the Court's greatest chief justice. The Warren Court desegregated the public schools, revolutionized criminal procedure, struck down school-sponsored prayer (receiving much public criticism) and extended various provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. Warren wrote the Court's unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) that is considered one of the great achievements in American history. He wrote: "We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."

What type of jurisdiction does the U.S. Supreme Court have?

The U.S. Supreme Court has appellate—not original—jurisdiction over most cases that it hears. This means that the vast majority of cases that come before the high court are heard in various lower courts in the federal and state court systems. These cases are then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in only certain types of cases—those in which states sue each other or in cases involving foreign diplomats. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court exercised its original jurisdiction to hear a border dispute between two states in the case of Virginia v. Tennessee (1893).

LegalSpeak: Extending Criminal Procedure Rights in the Bill of Rights to the States

The Warren Court extended many constitutional freedoms to the states in several of its rulings. These include:

Court Case: Mapp v. Ohio (1961)

Extended Freedoms: Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule; the exclusionary rule provides that evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment is excluded from evidence and must be suppressed. Justice Benjamin Cardozo referred to it as "the criminal goes free because the constable has blundered."

Court Case: Robinson v. California (1962)

Extended Freedoms: Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, which provides that punishment cannot be too disproportionate and excessive in proportion to the crime committed. For example, a 30 year sentence for simple assault would be "cruel and unusual" under the Eighth Amendment.

Court Case: Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

Extended Freedoms: Sixth Amendment right to counsel; this means that criminal defendants charged with serious crimes in state court have a right to an attorney. In this case, the Court said that criminal defense attorneys were "necessities, not luxuries."

Court Case: Malloy v. Hogan (1964)

Extended Freedoms: Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination; this means that the state cannot force a criminal defendant or suspect to speak against his or her will.

Court Case: Pointer v. Texas (1965)

Extended Freedoms: Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses; the Confrontation Clause enables criminal defendants (or their lawyers) to challenge the testimony and accuracy of witness's statements and accusations.

Court Case: Parker v. Gladden (1966)

Extended Freedoms: Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury; this means that a jury must be selected from a fair-cross section of the community and not exclude certain groups based on race for instance.

Court Case: Klopfer v. North Carolina (1967)

Extended Freedoms: Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial; this means that the government must institute legal proceedings and not simply keep a person in jail without proceeding with the case against the defendant.

Court Case: Washington v. Texas (1967)

Extended Freedoms: Sixth Amendment right to compulsory process; the compulsory process clause means that a defendant has the right to have the court issue subpoenas to witnesses to help in his or her defense.

Court Case: Duncan v. Louisiana (1968)

Extended Freedoms: Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial in criminal cases; this means that criminal defendants have a right to present their defense before a jury of their peers.

Court Case: Benton v. Maryland (1969)

Extended Freedoms: Fifth Amendment right to be free from double jeopardy; the double jeopardy clause means that the government cannot bring a subsequent prosecution if the person was already found innocent or guilty of the crime.

Appellate jurisdiction means that a higher court has the power to review a lower court ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court normally hears cases from state high courts, the federal circuit court of appeals and sometimes from special rulings by three-judge federal district court rulings.

 
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