Required Supreme Court Cases

15 min readapril 28, 2022

Akhilesh Shivaramakrishnan

Akhilesh Shivaramakrishnan

AP US Government 👩🏾‍⚖️

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Some Background

  • AP US Government & Politics students should be thoroughly familiar with 15 Supreme Court Cases for the AP exam. 
  • Not only should you be familiar with the final decisions, you should be familiar with the reasons for the majority opinion and how they impacted American society. 
  • According to the College Board, these cases are essential content in college courses and in-depth analysis will help you gain the basis needed for future courses in politics. 

Why Do I Need to Know These?

  • On your AP exam in May, your FRQ #3 will be a SCOTUS comparison essay.
    • You will be asked to compare one of the required cases (for which no information will be provided) with a case that is presented to you on the exam.
  • These required cases tend to appear throughout the AP exam multiple choice.
  • It is essential that you analyze these cases in depth so you are prepared for the AP Exam!

What Are The Required Cases?

  • Marbury v. Madison (1803)
  • McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)
  • Schenck v. the United States (1919)
  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
  • Engel v. Vitale (1962)
  • Baker v. Carr (1962)
  • Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)
  • Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)
  • New York Times Co. v. United States (1971)
  • Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)
  • Roe v. Wade (1973)
  • Shaw v. Reno (1993)
  • United States v. Lopez (1995)
  • McDonald v. Chicago (2010)
  • Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)

Why These Cases?

  • According to the College Board, these cases are essential to college courses in introductory history and politics. Many of these cases are controversial or were decided 5-4. 
  • These cases will help you further enhance your knowledge of the AP Government curriculum. You’ll be able to see how the content you learn about in class applies to real situations.

4 Key Points for Each Case

  • What context does the College Board want you to understand the case through? There is a reason why the College Board wants you to know each of the required Supreme Court cases for the AP exam. In their syllabus documents, they list out the exact reason why a particular case is relevant to government and politics. This can give you context on why each case is important, so make sure to read it!
  • A short summary of the case: Like an essay for your AP history class, you want to make sure that you provide context in your Supreme Court comparison FRQ. Therefore, it’s crucial that you understand the situation behind each of these cases. 
    • Might be helpful - the date: Although you will never be asked to recall the exact date of a Supreme Court case, knowing the date can help you put the case into context and can enhance your FRQ response.
  • Constitutional issues: What does the American government revolve around? You got it - the Constitution! Make sure you understand the constitutional issue that each case presents.
  • Holding, Constitutional Principle & Majority Opinion: The holding of the case is based on something from the Constitution. Knowing the holding and constitutional principle that was used to decide the case is the most important part. These will help you answer FRQ #3, which will ask you to compare the holding in one of the 15 required cases to a case you will be presented with on the AP exam.

Cases Involving Federalism

College Board Context: “CON-2.B.2: The balance of power between the national and state governments has changed over time based on US Supreme Court interpretation of (these) cases.”

McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)

  • Short Summary: In 1816, the Second Bank of the United States was chartered; soon after, in 1818, however, Maryland decided to pass a law that imposed taxes on the bank. James McCulloch, who served as a cashier at the Baltimore branch of the Second Bank, decided not to pay the tax. The state court had ruled that the Bank was unconstitutional, to begin with, and that the federal government did not have the authority to charter a bank
  • Constitutional Issues: Two questions could be explored in this case. Did Congress have the implied power to create a bank? And secondly, could states tax a federal entity/bank?
  • Holdings and Constitutional Principles: Congress concluded based on the Necessary & Proper Clause that Congress is not limited by its expressed powers. It was decided that through Congress’ implied powers, they had the ability to create a bank. Congress also concluded based on the Supremacy Clause that because the national laws were superior to state laws, the states were not allowed to tax the federal government.
    • Implied Powers: implied powers expand upon the enumerated powers that are listed in the Constitution. Congress is allowed to borrow money, coin money, and tax expressly by the Constitution. The implied power of creating a national bank allows for the federal government to implement this expressed power.

United States v. Lopez (1995)

  • Short Summary: Alfonzo Lopez was a Texas high school senior who took a concealed weapon inside his school. Federal charges were soon imposed because of his violation of the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. The act stated that individuals could not possess firearms within school zones based on the premise of the Commerce Clause.
  • Constitutional Issue: This case explored a constitutional issue involving the commerce clause, and whether the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 exceeded the power allowed by the clause.
  • Holding and Constitutional Principles: In the ruling, the law was considered unconstitutional since having a gun in the school zone did not substantially affect interstate commerce, which is a clear provision in the commerce clause. This case also reaffirmed the Tenth Amendment, which protects states’ rights. It was clear through this case that the commerce clause did not grant Congress limitless power.
    • Straight from the AP US Government Course Description: this case “(introduced) a new phase of federalism that recognized the importance of state sovereignty and local control.”

Cases Involving the First Amendment

College Board Context: “LOR-2: Provisions of the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights are continually being interpreted to balance the power of the government and the civil liberties of individuals.”
TIP: Do you have trouble remembering the main points the First Amendment addresses? Remember the acronym FEE RAPPS!
Free Exercise Clause
Establishment Clause
Petition the Government

Engel v. Vitale (1962)

  • Short Summary: The New York Board of Regents had authorized that at the beginning of each day, a short but voluntary prayer would be recited. Several organizations filed suit against the Board of Regents, claiming that the prayer violated the Constitution. The New York Court of Appeals dismissed their arguments.
  • Constitutional Issue: This case was significant and interesting because this prayer was both voluntary and non-denominational. However, the organizations filed suit based on a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which states that a law could not be made “respecting an establishment of religion.” 
  • Holding and Constitutional Principles: The court held that states could not hold prayers in public school EVEN IF it was voluntary and EVEN IF the prayer did not adhere to a specific religion. Because the act of prayer was considered a religious activity, having it occur in a public school (which is funded by the government) would go against the establishment clause of the first amendment.
    • Main Idea? School sponsorship of religious activities = violation of first amendment

Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972)

  • Short Summary: Jonas Yoder, as well as other Amish parents, refused to send their children to school after the 8th grade. In accordance with their religion, they did not agree with high school attendance. They were later charged under a Wisconsin law that required students to attend school until age 16.
  • Constitutional Issue: This case relates to the other major religious clause of the 1st Amendment: the free exercise clause. By requiring Wisconsin parents to send their children to school, without a faith exception, did it violate the parents' rights to freely exercise their religion?
  • Holding and Constitutional Principles: The court held that the requirement to send children to school beyond the eighth grade was unconstitutional. It stated that an individual’s interest in the free exercise of religion was more powerful than a federal interest in sending children to school beyond the eighth grade. 

Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)

  • Short Summary: A group of students decided to wear black armbands in order to protest the Vietnam War. Mary Beth Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt decided that they would wear their armbands to school despite warnings from school administration. After wearing the armbands to school, they were sent home. The students decided to sue their school district for violating the freedom of expression.
  • Constitutional Issue: The main question that was addressed here was whether the prohibition against wearing these armbands (and in general - symbolic protest) violated the freedom of speech clause of the First Amendment.
  • Holding and Constitutional Principle: The Supreme Court held that students still have free speech rights at school, and in order to justify the suppression of speech, the speech must substantially interfere with school operations (explore the case Bethel School District v. Fraser - it’s interesting). As referenced earlier, this case relates directly to the First Amendment, and the ruling confirmed that students’ right of symbolic speech was more powerful than the potential disorder that it could cause.
    • Majority Opinion: A common phrase you might hear is: “students don’t shed their rights at the schoolhouse gate.” This quote comes from the majority opinion in this case!

New York Times Co v. United States (1971)

  • Short Summary: This case, also known as the Pentagon Papers case had to do with the First Amendment. The Nixon Administration tried to prevent the New York Times from publishing material that belonged to a Defense Department study about US intervention in Vietnam. President Nixon stated that it was necessary to national security to prohibit it before publication, also known as prior restraint.
  • Constitutional Issue: The Constitutional issue that revolved around this case was whether the Nixon administration’s prior restraint was constitutional and if preventing the publication of “classified material” was a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of the press.
  • Holding and Constitutional Principle: The Supreme Court, in this case, bolstered the freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment. In a 6-3 vote, the Court established that there was a “heavy presumption against prior restraint” even for national security purposes. This is a key case to know for freedom of the press!

Schenck v. United States (1919)

  • Short Summary: During World War I, a pair of socialists, including Charles Schenck distributed leaflets that stated the draft violated the 13th Amendment - which prohibits involuntary servitude. The leaflet wanted people to disobey the draft. Schenck was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917. They appealed on the grounds of the First Amendment.
  • Constitutional Issue: This was a First Amendment case and the question was whether the Espionage Act violated the First Amendment and if it was an appropriate way that Congress exercised its wartime authority. 
  • Holding and Constitutional Principle: The Supreme Court held that the Espionage Act did not violate the First Amendment and it was an appropriate exercise of Congress’ wartime authority. This was a key limitation on the First Amendment as the free speech clause does not allow for advocacy of unlawful behavior.

Cases Involving Selective Incorporation

College Board Context: “LOR-3: Protections of the Bill of Rights have been selectively incorporated by way of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause to prevent state infringement of basic liberties.”

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

  • Short Summary: Clarence Earl Gideon was charged in Florida state court on a felony - breaking and entering charge. During his trial, Gideon requested that he receive a court-appointed lawyer; however, in accordance with Florida State law, an indigent defendant could only have an attorney be appointed in capital crimes/cases. Gideon then filed a habeas corpus suit, stating that the court’s decision violated his rights to be represented.
  • Constitutional Issue: The constitutional issue in this case involved the Sixth Amendment and whether the right to counsel guaranteed in this amendment also applied to felony defendants in state court.
  • Holding and Constitutional Principle: The holding was that the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel applies to state court defendants via the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court stated that because the right of counsel is fundamental, it should be incorporated into the states. 

Roe v. Wade (1973)

  • Short Summary: Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe) wanted an abortion but could not legally have one in the state of Texas, because of a state law that prohibited abortions except in cases where the mother’s life was in danger. She questioned the legality of this law.
  • Constitutional Issue: The Constitutional issue in this case was whether a woman’s right to have an abortion was permitted by the Constitution, and whether it fit into the broad right of privacy.
  • Holding and Constitutional Principle: The Supreme Court held that a woman’s right to an abortion fell within the right of privacy that was clarified in Griswold v. Connecticut, and therefore was protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. Laws in 46 states were affected by this ruling. This ruling expanded the definition of privacy.
    • Modern Connections: This case is one of the most controversial cases to appear before the Supreme Court. Political candidates are often split along party lines - Democrats often agree with this holding and Republicans often disagree.

McDonald v. Chicago (2010)

  • Short Summary: Chicago passed a handgun ban law, and several suits were filed against the city challenging the ban after another case (District of Columbia v. Heller). In that case, the Court had held that a DC handgun ban violated the Second Amendment. There, since the law was enacted by the federal government, the Second Amendment was applicable. 
  • Constitutional Issue: In this case, the applicability of the Second Amendment to the states was argued, and if the 2nd Amendment’s right to bear arms (interpreted as an individual right) also applied to the states. This involves selective incorporation!
  • Holding and Constitutional Principle: In its decision, the Court stated that the handgun ban was unconstitutional in a 5-4 decision. Because the right to self-defense was fundamental, the 2nd Amendment was incorporated to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.

Cases Involving the Equal Protection Clause

College Board Context: “PRD-1: The Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause as well as other constitutional provisions have often been used to support the advancement of equality.”

Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

  • Short Summary: This is one of the most famous cases in US history. Relating to the racial segregation of schools, African American students had been denied admittance to public schools because of these segregation laws, and many argued that this was in violation of the Constitution.
  • Constitutional Issue: This was an issue in terms of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A previous case, Plessy v. Ferguson, held that segregated facilities were legal as long as the facilities were equal (called “separate but equal doctrine.”) In this case, racial segregation in public school education was argued against based on the Equal Protection Clause.
  • Holding and Constitutional Principle: The Court held that “separate but equal is inherently unequal,” and therefore racial segregation of public schools is unconstitutional. The segregated schools allowed by the previous Plessy case were declared unconstitutional. This had a MAJOR IMPACT on the US and required desegregation of all public schools
    • Judicial Review: The Supreme Court is allowed to reverse previous rulings based on the premise of judicial review. See the Marbury v. Madison case for more info about this!
    • Stare Decisis: The case established that this principle, which states that current courts should look to previous decisions for interpretation, will not always be upheld.
    • Enforced?: The Court required states to desegregate "with all deliberate speed," and when schools had not desegregated after 10 years, the Court issued another opinion requiring immediate desegregation. This is an example of how judicial decisions may not be enforced by the federal or state executive departments.

Cases Involving Federal Policy

College Board Context: “PRD-2: The impact of federal policies on campaigning and electoral rules continues to be contested by both sides of the political spectrum.”

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)

  • Short Summary: The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 had previously banned corporations from independent political spending and direct contributions to campaigns or political parties. In 2008, Citizens United was not allowed to show an anti-Hillary Clinton movie.
  • Constitutional Issue: The issue here was whether the BCRA applied to nonprofits, or if the First Amendment’s free speech clause protected such political speech.
  • Holding and Constitutional Principle: The holding in this case was that corporations should be considered people and therefore their funding of “independent political expenditures cannot be limited.” This is considered a form of political speech, which is protected by the free speech portion of the First Amendment. 
    • Further Impact: This led to the development of Super PACS and a significant increase in the amount of money contributed to political campaigns.
Note: In my opinion, this is one of the hardest cases to get straight! This is one I would definitely recommend studying early-on before the exam!

Cases Involving Districting & Representation

College Board Context: “CON-3: The republican ideal in the U.S. is manifested in the structure and operation of the legislative branch.”

Baker v. Carr (1962)

  • Short Summary: Charles Baker stated that an old law (1901) that detailed the apportionment for Tennessee’s General Assembly had been ignored, and stated that reapportionment did not take into account the significant change that the state had gone through.
  • Constitutional Issue: The issue here was unique, and was regarding whether the Supreme Court as a unit had the authority to hear cases that related to legislative apportionment. 
  • Holding and Constitutional Principle: The chief justice and the Court concluded that because of the Fourteenth Amendment issues (through equal protection) that the case seemed to address, the Supreme Court did have the authority to hear this case. 
    • Impact: This case opened the door to more challenges to unfair redistricting by way of the Equal Protection Clause. Eventually, it also led to the development of the one person, one vote doctrine.

Shaw v. Reno (1993)

  • Short Summary: Several North Carolina residents challenged a proposed, unusually shaped district. They believed that the only purpose of the district was that it would definitely elect African-American representatives.
  • Constitutional Issue: The constitutional issue here was whether racial gerrymandering took place with this district (it was very narrow) and if the district raised an Equal Protection Clause question.
  • Holding and Constitutional Principle: The Supreme Court held, in a majority opinion authored by Sandra Day O’Connor, that because the district was shaped in such a clearly odd way, it was enough to prove that there was a very apparent effort to separate voters racially.
    • Further Impact: A key fact about this case is that majority-minority districts can be constitutionally challenged if race was the sole factor in their creation.

Cases Involving Judicial Review

College Board Context: “CON-5: The design of the judicial branch protects the Supreme Court’s independence as a branch of government, and the emergence and use of judicial review remains a powerful judicial practice.”

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

  • Short Summary: The 1800 election ended in a defeat for John Adams to Thomas Jefferson. Before Adams’ term ended, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 (creating new courts, adding new judges). It was an effort by John Adams to keep his own influence in federal courts even though he was leaving office (still occurs today.) His appointments to these courts, however, were not valid until the appointed judges were delivered their commissions by Jefferson’s Secretary of State. Marbury was one of the judges appointed; however, his commission was not delivered. 
  • Constitutional Issue: A key issue was whether the Court had the authority to order the delivery of commission, and if a federal judge could even bring the case to court.
  • Holding and Constitutional Principle: The Court held that although legally, the commission should have been delivered, the clause of the Judiciary Act of 1789 which enabled Marbury to bring the case to court was unconstitutional. By declaring a law made by Congress unconstitutional, the practice of judicial review was established.

How to study the required court cases?

We suggest making sure to create a study plan and set up your study space with a good environment. Then, go over each court case and quiz yourself on the details. To help with your productivity, especially during the last few days before the exam, you should use a pomodoro study timer to break up your sessions into intervals and make time for breaks. It is also hugely beneficial to study with friends so that you can motivate one another and crush the AP Gov exam together! 🙌🏾
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