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TIME

The Best Supreme Court Decisions Since 1960

Oct 06, 2015

Excerpted from the TIME special edition The Supreme Court: Decisions That Changed America. Pick up your copy in stores today. Digital edition available at TimeSpecials.com

Ah, the glorious life of a Supreme being. For one thing, the nine justices on the Supreme Court never have to worry that their verdicts might be reversed by a higher court—there isn’t one. But that doesn’t mean that the court’s decisions aren’t regularly critiqued by hundreds of constitutional law professors nationwide. As this book was being prepared, TIME reached out by email to a number of leading law professors and asked them to identify their choices for the best and worst Supreme Court decisions since 1960. We sent our admittedly unscientific survey invitation to more than 50 such scholars and garnered 34 responses. Our respondents were asked either to reply to our invitation anonymously or to share their thoughts for attribution in these pages.

Among the decisions repeatedly praised by the law-school professors were those that championed civil and individual liberties, as well as those that made democracy more participatory. Decisions that were often mentioned included Loving v. Virginia (1967), which found restrictions on interracial marriage unconstitutional; New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), which protected freedom of the press in the realm of political reporting and libel; Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964), which established the one-person, one-vote concept in legislative apportionment; and Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 same-sex-marriage ruling.

On the negative side, many professors were critical of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), which removed campaign-spending limits on corporations and unions, as well as Bush v. Gore (2000), which resulted in George W. Bush’s winning the presidential election. It’s no surprise that the ever-controversial decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) appeared on the lists of both the best and worst decisions.

Here’s a sampling of the opinions generated when we asked court-watchers to put the best decisions of the past 55 years on the scales. Click here to see what they thought the worst decisions were.

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TIME

Richard Delgado, University of Alabama

Loving v. Virginia (1967). This decision, which legalized interracial marriage, put the last nail in the coffin of the South’s system of racial apartheid.

Saikrishna Prakash, University of Virginia

U.S. v. Lopez (1995). The case began when a Texas student brought a gun to his high school. It became the vehicle for a reconsideration of the commerce clause’s limits, reinvigorating the idea that the federal government is one of limited and enumerated powers. The rationale continues to reverberate some 20 years later.

Jamal Greene, Columbia University

Loving v. Virginia (1967). The best court decision since 1960 is Loving. Its reaffirmation in the court’s recent same-sex-marriage cases establishes it as the foundation of what we may now call the constitutional right to love.

Margaret Montoya, University of New Mexico

Loving v. Virginia (1967). This decision was an affirmation of love and a resounding rejection of the ideology of white supremacy.

Martin Redish, Northwestern University

Texas v. Johnson (1989). I chose this decision, which found prohibitions on desecrations of the American flag to violate the right of free speech, because it grasped the true stakes in First Amendment litigation and overcame formalistic distinctions to focus on what that amendment is, at its core, about.

Cass Sunstein, Harvard University

Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969). I believe this decision, which involved a Ku Klux Klan meeting in which a speaker seemed to call for violent action against the U.S. government, is the best, because it entrenches the “clear and present danger” test, and so gives broad protection to political dissent.

Lawrence Sager, University of Texas, Austin

Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). The court drew upon two of the most important principles of justice we have come to insist upon in the name of the Constitution: equal membership and intimate association. It is seldom possible to say that we are a better nation by virtue of a decision by the Supreme Court, but in this instance we emphatically are.

Erwin Chemerinsky, University of California, Irvine

Reynolds v. Sims (1964). One-person, one-vote is constitutionally required. For any legislative body with districts, all districts must be about the same in population. This decision made government far more democratic and representative.

Owen Fiss, Yale University

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). This decision modernized the intellectual foundations of the free-speech traditions that have ensured the vibrancy of American democracy.

Richard Pildes, New York University

Reynolds v. Sims (1964). The court’s one-person, one-vote ruling was perhaps the most radical decision in its history. It required every legislature in the United States, and the U.S. Congress, to be dramatically restructured so that representatives to any elected body represent the same number of people.

Cary Franklin, University of Texas, Austin

Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S. (1964). In this case, the court upheld Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which granted African Americans full access to public accommodations such as hotels, restaurants and movie theaters. The court confirmed that Congress has broad powers, under the commerce clause, to address important national problems—many of which are still with us and still need addressing today.

Steven Shiffrin, Cornell University

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). Sullivan overturned the censorial aspects of the law of libel and made it far easier in what’s left of our democracy for citizens—including the Fourth Estate—to criticize the powerful.

Jenny Martinez, Stanford University

New York Times Co. v. U.S. (1971). The Pentagon Papers case helped preserve our democracy by allowing free speech and debate about important government policies.

Kathryn Abrams, University of California, Berkeley

Loving v. Virginia (1967). I’ve always liked this opinion for its blunt call-out of white supremacy. A close second would be Romer v. Evans (1996), which I like for the majority opinion’s exacting parsing of the dubious rationales behind a Colorado law written to deny protected status to homosexuals.

Ashutosh Bhagwat, University of California, Davis

Texas v. Johnson (1989). Because free speech means tolerating the speech we hate—including the desecration of the nation’s flag.

Michael Dorf, Cornell University

Baker v. Carr (1962). The decision held that the courts could hear challenges to malapportionment of legislatures, thus removing a very substantial obstacle to democratic governance.

Excerpted from the TIME special edition The Supreme Court: Decisions That Changed America. Pick up your copy in stores today. Digital edition available at TimeSpecials.com

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