Court Cases Representing Public Opinion Effect On The Supreme Court

The judicial branch of the United States is a system of courts that interprets the law. Usually these laws can be found in the Constitution. However, some of these laws are made up by the legislative branch. This branch works with all the other branches of the country to ensure that laws are being followed the way they should be. Article III of the Constitution leaves Congress to determine the structure of the judiciary system. The Constitution also gives power to federal and district courts. The Supreme Court is the highest court found in the United States and is also at the top of the judicial branch.

One of the cases were this can be seen is Dred Scott v. Sanford. This case was one of the most controversial events that occurred before the Civil War. In 1857, the Supreme Court was brought this case by Dred Scott. At the time, Scott was a slave from Missouri. He had been living in Illinois. However, slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise there. After he returned to Missouri, Scott filed a suit for his freedom. He claimed that because he’d been living in a free state for some time, he should also be considered free. The main question that the Court had to answer was whether Dred Scott was a slave or not. During this time, there was the debate of free states versus slave states. Part of the reason why the Court decided to listen to this one case was, in a way, to clear the air between them and maybe clarify what could or could not be done. The ruling was 7–2, in Sandford’s favor and held majority opinion by Roger B. Taney. The majority ruled said that “a negro ... sold as slaves,” could not be an American citizen. Taney also claimed that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. Ultimately, Scott was not a free slave just because he moved to a free state. The ruling in this case undermined the value of African Americans and clearly suggested that their anguish was not as important as the fact that they could work and make money for people. One can argue that a lot of Taney’s arguments during the time were a reflection of the public opinion that ranged in this time period. During this period, it would be hard to say that people were still not accustomed to the fact that slaves were also people. Yes, there were some people that believed that they should be free but most still saw them as slaves and wanted to continue to profit off their suffering. Part of the Court’s job is to reflect on this public opinion. It may not be their only requirement. However, looking at this case and the ruling, it truly does highlight what many believed in this state and at this time.

Secondly, the case of Plessy v. Ferguson can also be used to describe this phenomena. This case can easily be seen as a landmark for the United States. It upheld that racial segregation was constitutional and could not be argued against. One of it’s most famous lines from the ruling was the doctrine of “separate but equal”. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, many Southern states did not agree with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment, which ultimately gave rights that everyone else had to African Americans. To quickly fix this many white suprmisct groups started to take form and started to reassert themselves into the South again. An example of one of the things that was done to make sure that African Americans didn’t have all of their complete rights was Jim Crow Laws, which all legalized racial segregation. Plessy v. Ferguson was brought in by Homer Plessy. The case came from an incident in 1896 where Plessy was sitting in a train and refused to sit in a car for blacks. At the time, there were train cars for Blacks and train cars for Whites. Breaking these rules could get someone very hurt. Plessy argued that his constitutional rights were being taken away from him, which he received not that long ago. The Supreme Court, however, rejected this argument. It ruled that a law that says that there is a “ a legal distinction” between African American and whites was not unconstitutional. In this case, the doctrine of “separate but equal” was literal. African Americans had their rights granted however, in every other sense, they could not be in an establishment meant for only white people. In this, the Supreme Court’s ruling also undermined equal representation. This not only created a country where Jim Crow laws became normal but it also created a country where, again, African Americans were being seen as less and not equal because they couldn't enjoy the same things, liberties and freedoms that a person who was white could. Because of Jim Crow Laws, the ruling openly reveals public opinion during this time period. It can also be said that the Court decided to hear this case as also an expression of what everything that was happening. If it wasn’t seen as important to the point where they felt that this ruling would do nothing, then they wouldn’t have taken this case or wouldn't have heard it in the first place. However, people cared, so to say, the Court also had to care. Every case that comes to them is a display of what people care about and want to be able to resolve. It is counterproductive if the Courts don’t reflect these opinions. However, just because the case was important doesn’t mean that it didn’t compromise African Americans rights any less.

Lastly, another case that is also used to highlight the power that public opinion has on the Court is Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the doctrine of “separate but equal” was legally installed and was still in effect. One could see this in school, restaurants, buses, water fountains, parks, etc. However, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka directly challenged this ruling in its legitimacy. Oliver Brown filed a suit against the Board of Education of Topeka after his daughter was rejected from being able to go to white elementary schools. Brown claimed that schools for black children were in no way equal to the white schools because they didn’t have them the same education. It can be seen that many of the white schools were more advanced in what they taught and how they taught it. He claimed it was unfair for his daughter to have to go to a zone school because of this and miss out on opportunities being given to others. He also claimed that segregation violated the “equal protection clause” of the 14th Amendment, in case making that case unconstitutional. The ruling was unanimous and said that “in the field of public education...‘separate but equal’ has no place,” and that as a result African Americans were being “deprived of the equal protection of the laws”. In a way, this case was also to give back rights that they had lost. This case single handedly reversed Plessy v. Ferguson. Thinking about the power of public opinion on the Court’s rulings, it can be argued that there would be a really low chance that this case would have had the same ruling if it took place at the same time as Plessy v. Ferguson. This is because public opinion changes with time. During this time, people protested against a lot of segregation rules. They gave speeches and inspired many people to fight for their rights. They also started to realize how uneven and unfair everything was. It was the white schools that could someone into the best colleges which couldn't exactly happen if you didn’t receive the same education. In a sense, the Courts become more liberal when the people become more liberal which is exactly what is reflected in these cases.

Does public opinion directly influence Court rulings? Maybe. However, saying that it has no influence over it is also not correct. It also isn't the only thing affecting the ruling but it does play a big part in how the Court will rule. Many things are playing out when the Court decides to hear a case but also when it decides to make a ruling. Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka are all a representation of public opinion effect on the Supreme Court. This is because cases are filed by the people. When a person believes that their rights given to them by the Constitution are being threatened, they react. This rulings don’t also reflect what is right but they do show what people perceived to be correct and is also a viable tool in how we can learn from history and from past mistakes.


  • Kernell, Samuel. The Logic of American Politics. 9th ed., CQ Press/SAGE, 2019.
  • Zaller, John. “Epilogue : The Question of Elite Domination of Public Opinion.” The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, by John R. Zaller, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 310–332.   
16 December 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now