Students in my Supreme Court/Constitutional Law courses face a final exam question where they have to identify what they consider to be the three most important cases we’ve studied during the semester, and to defend their selections with reference to the cases’ legal, political, and perhaps social/cultural significance. (If any of my current students are reading, well, your curiosity will be rewarded shortly.) Well, this month’s Big Question at The Atlantic offers an intriguing variant of my inquiry: “What’s the Most Important Supreme Court Case No One’s Ever Heard Of?” (For those of you for whom the musical reference is too obscure, read this, go grab some Big Star recordings, and thank me later.)
My initial response, taking into account the state of public knowledge of Supreme Court history, was McCulloch v. Maryland. (Even I’m not snarky enough to pick something like Brown or Roe, though I would note recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life findings that a majority of Americans under 30, and almost 2/5 of all Americans, are unaware that Roe is about abortion.) But a more generous reading could define the “no one” in the question as “no one who has a New York Times regular’s understanding of the Supreme Court.” The legal luminaries who contributed to this feature seemed to interpret the phrase this way, so I’ll do the same. (And I’m impressed with the choices made, though I would question Elizabeth Wurtzel’s selection of the 1989 case Michael H. v. Gerald D.–dramatic, yes, but “most important” within the category of obscure cases?)
So what would my selection be? I’m tempted to include several, but that feels like cheating, as the participants at The Atlantic had to limit themselves to one. So Daubert v. Merrell Down Pharmaceuticals (1993), which gave federal trial judges significant gatekeeping functions with respect to scientific expert testimony, will have to settle for honorable mention. My choice would be City of Richmond v. Croson (1989), in which the Rehnquist Court first signaled unambiguously its deep and abiding skepticism for race-consciousness in public policy intended to benefit members of historical disadvantaged groups. In striking down Richmond, Virginia’s requirement that 30 percent of city subcontracting dollars be set aside for minority business enterprises, the Court held that race-based classifications should be reviewed under strict scrutiny, the most stringent standard of equal protection review, whether they were intended to help or harm members of minority groups. The Court’s statement on behalf of a color-blind reading of the Fourteenth Amendment set the stage for the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts to limit the use of race in federal contracting, redistricting, pupil assignment, and perhaps voting rights.
Which case(s) would you nominate for the title of “most important obscure case?”