When the Supreme Court rules on a case, the impact is usually limited to the actual litigating parties. These decisions are undeniably important as established precedent, but mostly irrelevant for everyone else. It takes the Court ruling on juicy constitutional questions in order to pique the interest of the average citizen.

That’s exactly what happened recently when the Court ruled on a gun rights issue in McDonald v. Chicago. In this ruling, the Court ruled the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms was applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. This decision determined the handgun bans enacted by Chicago and Oak Park to be unconstitutional. The nationwide implications of this ruling are clear and profound. I love this case not because I necessarily agree with the ruling (I could care less, I don’t own guns), but because a fundamental constitutional question was decided in a narrow 5-4 vote. This got me thinking, how many other fundamental rights have been decided by essentially one person?

In 2010, twelve cases were decided in votes of 5-4. The subject matter ranged from whether the Sarbanes Oxley Act violates the separation of power doctrine, to whether the National Labor Relations Board has authority to decide cases with only two sitting members. There’s not a whole lot there to intrigue anyone except law professors and legal scholars. One 5-4 decision that did garner a lot of attention dealt with the ever popular subject of Miranda rights. In Berghuis v. Thompkins, the Court held that a suspect must clearly invoke his Miranda rights if he doesn’t want to talk to police, and secondly, any response made to police questioning amounts to a confession and a waiver of Miranda rights. The reason this case received attention is because it essentially limited Miranda protections and signaled a shift in policy.

What about looking back farther into the Court’s past. Are there any narrowly decided cases that have impacted our daily lives?

A look at past 5-4 decisions

Many people think Roe v. Wade, the case that deemed abortions to be constitutional under a due process theory, was a 5-4 decision. In fact, only two justices voted in dissent. However, all following cases dealing with restricting abortion rights have been decided in 5-4 votes. These include Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, Planned Parenthood v. Case, Stenberg v. Carnhart, and finally in 2003, Gonzales v. Carhart. It is worth noting the last case upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act as constitutional and arguably left the door open for a modern attempt to overturn Roe.

In Lee v. Weisman, decided in 1992, the Court held that a school endorsed clergy-led prayer during a graduation ceremony violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Prayer in school is historically a heated subject because of the First Amendment implications. Had this case been decided differently, it would be constitutional for a religious leader to attend a school-sponsored event like a graduation, and lead the student body in prayer.

Grutter v. Bollinger, decided in 2003, helped determine the modern role of affirmative action policies in public school admissions. The Court decided that university admissions could use applicant race as a factor in determining whether to admit a student. This case was a huge blow to those arguing for the complete abolishment of affirmative action in public schools. What’s really interesting about this case is that in her decision, Justice O’Connor wrote that affirmative action would “probably” not be necessary in order to promote diversity in “perhaps twenty-five years.” I guess we should expect a Supreme Court decision overruling Grutter in 2028.

Although it wasn’t a 5-4 decision, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, decided 5-3, deemed the military tribunals used for enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay to be unconstitutional. This decision is the reason accused terrorists now have the right to a trial in the U.S. and is also the cause of much grief for the current Obama administration.

In Roper v. Simmons, decided in 2005, the Court found it was unconstitutional to impose capital punishment for crimes committed by someone under the age of 18. Cases like these really illustrate how ideologically divided the Court can be on certain issues.

In the infamous Kelo v. New London decision, decided in 2005, the Court held it was constitutional for a local government to use eminent domain to take a private person’s property and give it to another private party for the purpose of furthering economic development. The real kicker with this case is that although Susette Kelo’s home was taken away from her with the promise her property would be redeveloped, the plan never materialized. The property that was taken now sits dormant, a monument to what many believe to be a gross injustice and misinterpretation of the Fifth Amendment.

Looking forward

The Federal District Court for the Northern District just decided in Perry v. Schwarzenegger that marriage is a fundamental right for same-sex couples, and denying homosexuals the right to marry is a violation of due process rights under the Constitution. Many people believe this will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court, where we can expect a narrow ruling with nationwide implications. If this case does make it to the Court, all eyes will be on the newly admitted Justices who lack a concrete voting history on the subject.