The history of the U.S. Supreme Court can be seen as a political pendulum, swinging back and forth between liberal and conservative ideologies. Conservative courts are typically composed of conservative justices appointed by conservative presidents, while liberal courts are made up of liberal justices appointed by liberal presidents.
The name of the chief justice at the time often characterizes these courts. During the 1960s, the pendulum swung to the apex of liberalism with the Warren Court. Chief Justice Earl Warren led the Warren Court from 1953 to 1969. The court adhered to Packer’s Due Process Model, particularly after the judicial activists achieved a majority on the court with the retirement of Justice Frankfurter in 1962. This date marks the true beginning of the civil rights revolution.
The Warren Court
The United States Supreme Court plays a significant role in shaping criminal justice policies. During the 1960s, the Warren Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, emphasized civil rights across the legal spectrum. This liberal court handed down many landmark decisions that redefined the American legal landscape in terms of civil liberties.
Before the 1960s, the Supreme Court seldom interfered with how states conducted their criminal justice systems. However, the Warren Court changed this approach when it passed down its decision in Mapp v. Ohio in 1961. The court would continue to hand down decisions that redefined civil liberties over Warren’s tenure.
One landmark decision was Mapp v. Ohio (1961), which applied the exclusionary rule to all law enforcement in the United States, no matter what level of government employed them. The exclusionary rule prohibited illegally obtained evidence from being used against citizens in court. Another landmark decision was Chimel v. California (1969), which established an exception to the warrant requirement known as a search incident to arrest. This decision limited standard police practices and enforced due process.
The Warren Court’s decisions significantly impacted due process and defendants’ rights. In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the court held that indigent defendants facing jail time had the right to appointed counsel if they could not afford their own lawyer. Miranda v. Arizona (1966) ruled that police must inform suspects of certain rights before custodial interrogation. However, not all decisions benefited criminal defendants. In Terry v. Ohio (1968), the Court ruled that the police could search suspects for weapons with less than probable cause. This lesser standard of proof has become known as reasonable suspicion.
Movement Towards Conservatism
During the 1970s, the composition of the Supreme Court began to change, and the pendulum swung back towards conservatism. Republican presidents like Nixon, Reagan, and Bush replaced retiring liberal justices. By the end of the first Bush administration, the court had shifted from the liberal Warren Court to a more conservative body. This new court created many exceptions to the protections established by the Warren Court, expanding lawful investigative activities for law enforcement. This change did not only happen within the courts but also extended to the executive and legislative branches.
The Burger Court served from 1969 to 1986 and was known for its more conservative ideology than its predecessor, the Warren Court. However, despite the presence of Burger, a conservative justice appointed by Nixon, the court did not become decisively conservative, as there was no conservative majority. In many respects, the Burger Court was transitional in many respects, serving as a bridge between the Warren Court and the more conservative Rehnquist Court that followed it.
While Burger was a conservative, he did not have the support of a majority of like-minded justices, and as a result, the court maintained many of the Warren Court’s liberal doctrines. For example, the court continued to uphold the exclusionary rule, which prohibited using illegally obtained evidence in criminal trials and to protect individual rights in other ways. However, the Burger Court did chip away at some of the Warren Court’s doctrines, creating new exceptions and limitations that narrowed the scope of existing protections.
One of the most controversial cases of the Burger Court was Furman v. Georgia (1972), which abolished the death penalty as it was then applied. In a 5-4 decision, the court held that the arbitrary and capricious application of the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Although Burger was a conservative, he joined with the four liberal justices to form the majority in this case. This decision was seen as a significant departure from the traditional conservative approach to criminal justice, which favored strict sentencing and punishment.
In Gregg v. Georgia (1976), the court revisited the death penalty issue, and Burger voted with the majority to reinstate it in a 7-2 decision. However, this decision did not signal a shift in the court’s overall ideology, as the majority opinion was carefully crafted to address the concerns raised in Furman and to limit the circumstances in which the death penalty could be imposed. The court established a bifurcated sentencing process, in which juries would determine guilt or innocence and decide whether to impose the death penalty based on aggravating and mitigating circumstances.
The Burger Court also dealt with other important issues related to criminal justice, such as the Fourth Amendment‘s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. In United States v. Ross (1982), the court upheld the warrantless search of a car stopped by police because police had probable cause to believe that the vehicle contained evidence of a crime. This decision was seen as a victory for law enforcement, as it expanded the scope of permissible warrantless searches.
The Burger Court was a transitional period in the Supreme Court’s history, bridging the gap between the more liberal Warren Court and the more conservative Rehnquist Court. While a conservative justice led the court, it did not have a conservative majority, and as a result, it maintained many of the Warren Court’s liberal doctrines. Nonetheless, the Burger Court did chip away at some of these doctrines, creating new exceptions and limitations that narrowed the scope of existing protections. The court dealt with many important issues related to criminal justice, such as the death penalty and the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Its decisions continue to influence legal thinking and practice today.
The Rehnquist Court, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist from 1986 to 2005, was marked by a conservative ideology that differed significantly from the liberalism of the Warren Court. While the Burger Court that preceded it was also conservative, the Rehnquist Court was much more so, with a clear conservative majority. This majority was primarily due to the appointments made by Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, who were able to shift the balance of the Court away from the more liberal rulings of the past.
Chief Justice Rehnquist was a strong proponent of states’ rights and believed that the proper balance of power between the federal government and the states had been upset by the liberal interpretations of the Warren Court. He was particularly critical of the Court’s broad view of the Fourteenth Amendment, which had been used to strike down various state laws that the Warren Court deemed discriminatory or unfair. In contrast, Rehnquist believed that the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause should be applied narrowly and that the Court should generally defer to the states on matters of social policy.
To this end, the Rehnquist Court created numerous exclusions that chipped away at the liberal decisions of the Warren Court. These exclusions were intended to limit the scope of federal power and to allow states to make their own decisions on issues such as criminal justice and civil rights. One example of this chipping away is Maryland v. Garrison (1987), which held that a search pursuant to a warrant that the police believed incorrectly to be valid did not violate the searched person’s Fourth Amendment rights. This decision created a “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule, which had previously required the suppression of all evidence obtained due to an unconstitutional search or seizure. This exception allowed evidence to be admitted at trial if the police had acted in good faith, even if their actions violated the Constitution.
Another example of the Rehnquist Court’s conservative ideology is California v. Greenwood (1988), which ruled that a warrant was unnecessary to search a garbage can left on the curb for pickup. This decision was based on the Court’s view that people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in items that they have discarded and that the police are, therefore, free to search such items without a warrant. This ruling was widely criticized by civil libertarians, who argued that it undermined the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
These exclusions and limitations on federal power were celebrated by conservatives, who saw them as strengthening the police’s ability to do their job and promoting law and order. Liberals, on the other hand, mourned these decisions as eroding hard-won civil liberties and creating a legal system that was less protective of individual rights. Despite this ideological divide, it is essential to note that the Rehnquist Court’s decisions were not necessarily aligned with the political affiliations of the judges or the presidents who appointed them. Instead, they reflected a particular interpretation of the Constitution and the role of the federal government espoused by the conservative legal movement of the time.
The modern courts after the Rehnquist Court (1986-2005) have continued the trend of being ideologically divided between liberal and conservative justices. For example, the current court is often characterized as having a 6-3 conservative majority due to the appointments made by former President Donald Trump.
Carpenter v. United States (2018) is a recent case that illustrates this divide. The court held that the government’s warrantless acquisition of a criminal suspect’s cell phone location data violated the Fourth Amendment. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell phone location data and that the government must obtain a warrant before accessing it. The decision was widely hailed as a victory for privacy and civil liberties advocates.
Another recent case, Kansas v. Glover (2020), demonstrates the conservative trend in the court’s criminal justice decisions. In this case, the court held that a police officer’s reasonable suspicion that the registered owner of a vehicle was driving it, even if the officer did not know for sure who was driving, was sufficient to justify a traffic stop. The decision was seen as a victory for law enforcement and a narrowing of Fourth Amendment protections.
The modern courts have continued to reflect the ideological divide in American politics, with liberal and conservative justices often splitting on key criminal justice issues. The court has also been divided on sentencing and the death penalty issues. In 2019, the court held in Bucklew v. Precythe that a death row inmate could be executed by lethal injection despite his claim that it would cause him severe pain due to a rare medical condition. The decision was 5-4, with the conservative justices in the majority.
Analyzing a court case to determine if it is liberal or conservative requires carefully examining the legal issues at stake and the reasoning used by the court in its decision. The political affiliation of the president who appointed the justices involved in the case is not necessarily a reliable indicator of whether the case is liberal or conservative.
Instead, when analyzing a court case, one should examine the legal principles and values. However, this is only sometimes the case, and there are many nuances and exceptions to these generalizations. For example, cases that expand individual rights and limit government power are often considered liberal, while cases that limit individual rights and expand government power are often considered conservative.
To differentiate liberal/conservative cases from Democrat/Republican politics, it is crucial to understand that political parties are not the same as legal ideologies. While there may be some overlap between the two, political parties are primarily concerned with policy positions and electoral politics. In contrast, legal ideologies are concerned with legal principles and constitutional interpretation.
For example, a case that expands individual rights may be seen as liberal, even if Republicans support it. In contrast, a case that limits individual rights may be seen as conservative, even if Democrats support it. Legal ideologies can also evolve, and justices appointed by the same president may have different legal ideologies and interpret the Constitution differently.
When analyzing a court case to determine if it is liberal or conservative, one should focus on the legal principles and values rather than the political affiliation of the justices involved. It is also important to differentiate legal ideologies from political parties, as they differ.
Juveniles and Civil Rights
Before the 1960s, only a few people questioned the broad authority of the juvenile justice system. However, during the Civil Rights Revolution, the Supreme Court examined the rights of juveniles and found them inadequate. In a series of important cases, the Supreme Court significantly expanded the rights of juveniles, causing some to argue that the juvenile justice system became more similar to the adult system.
The landmark case of In Re Gault (1967) extended many of the due process rights that adults accused of a crime already had to juveniles. The circumstances of the case were quite alarming: a 15-year-old boy named Gerald Gault had received a six-year sentence in a state “training school” for making a prank phone call. If Gerald had been an adult, the most he would have faced for this offense would have been a $50 fine and two months in jail.
As was typical in juvenile cases at the time, Gerald was convicted and sentenced in an informal proceeding without the benefit of a lawyer. After reviewing the case, the court determined that all juveniles at risk of being incarcerated had the fundamental right to a defense lawyer, to confront and cross-examine their accusers in court, and to be given adequate notice of the charges against them.
In Re Gault marked the beginning of a long series of cases where the Supreme Court extended the rights that adults had in the criminal justice system to juveniles in the juvenile justice system. In In Re Winship (1970), the court established that the state must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” just as in adult courts.
In Breed v. Jones (1975), the Court expanded the constitutional protection against Double Jeopardy to juveniles, stating that juveniles could not be found delinquent in juvenile court and then transferred to adult court without a hearing on the transfer. However, the Supreme Court did not extend all adult rights to juveniles. In McKeiver v. Pennsylvania (1971), the court determined that juveniles had no right to a trial by jury.
In the 1980s, the “get tough on crime” era, juveniles were also subject to stricter penalties. Lawmakers made similar changes to the juvenile justice system as they had to the adult system. For example, in Schall v. Martin (1984), the court decided that juveniles could be held in preventive detention if it was determined that they posed a risk of committing additional crimes while awaiting court action. Additionally, more juveniles qualified for a waiver to be tried in adult criminal court.
A pendulum-like swing between liberal and conservative ideologies characterizes the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Warren Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, represented the apex of liberalism in the 1960s, focusing on civil rights and handing down many landmark decisions that redefined civil liberties.
However, the court’s composition began to change in the 1970s, leaning back towards conservatism. The Burger Court, led by Chief Justice Warren Burger, was more conservative than its predecessor but maintained many of the Warren Court’s liberal doctrines.
The Rehnquist Court, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, was marked by a conservative ideology that chipped away at the liberal decisions of the Warren Court. The court created numerous exclusions that limited the scope of federal power and promoted states’ rights.
While conservatives celebrated these decisions, they were criticized by liberals who saw them as eroding civil liberties. Despite this ideological divide, the decisions of the Rehnquist Court reflected a particular interpretation of the Constitution and the role of the federal government espoused by the conservative legal movement of the time.
he modern US courts continue to be divided between liberal and conservative justices. Recent cases, such as Carpenter v. United States and Kansas v. Glover, demonstrate this division in criminal justice decisions. The court has been divided on issues related to sentencing and the death penalty issues. To analyze a court case, one should focus on the legal principles and values rather than the political affiliation of the justices involved.
The Supreme Court significantly expanded the rights of juveniles in the 1960s, marking the beginning of a long series of cases where the court extended adult rights to juveniles in the juvenile justice system. However, during the 1980s, lawmakers changed the juvenile justice system, subjecting juveniles to stricter penalties, such as holding them in preventive detention and allowing more juveniles to be tried in adult criminal court.
- Carpenter v. United States, 585 U.S. ___ (2018).
- California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 (1988).
- Chimel v. California, 395 U.S. 752 (1969).
- Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963).
- Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976).
- Kansas v. Glover, 591 U.S. ___ (2020).
- Maryland v. Garrison, 480 U.S. 79 (1987).
- Mapp v. Ohio, 367 U.S. 643 (1961).
- Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).
- Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).
- Bucklew v. Precythe, 587 U.S. ___ (2019).
- In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967).
- In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970).
- Breed v. Jones, 421 U.S. 519 (1975).
- McKeiver v. Pennsylvania, 403 U.S. 528 (1971).
- Schall v. Martin, 467 U.S. 253 (1984).
- The Supreme Court Historical Society. (n.d.). The Warren Court.
- The Supreme Court Historical Society. (n.d.). The Burger Court.
- The Supreme Court Historical Society. (n.d.). The Rehnquist Court.
Breed v. Jones (1975), Burger Court (1969 -1986), California v. Greenwood (1988), Chimel v. California (1969), Civil Rights Revolution, Fourth Amendment, Furman v. Georgia (1972), Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), Good Faith Exception, Gregg v. Georgia (1976), In Re Gault (1967), In Re Winship (1970), Mapp v. Ohio (1961), Maryland v. Garrison (1987), McKeiver v. Pennsylvania (1971), Miranda v. Arizona (1966), Rehnquist Court (1986-2005), Schall v. Martin (1984), Search Incident to Arrest, Terry v. Ohio (1968), Wolf v. Colorado (1949)
Last Modified: 07/13/2023
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.