7 Bonkers Backstories To Landmark Supreme Court Cases
The Supreme Court differs from lower courts in that in addition to coming with sour cream and guacamole, they also have the final say on the rule of law. As such, many landmark cases have found their way into the history books. History books that sometimes leave out the case's crazier details ...
Railroad Officials Conspired With a Civil Rights Group Undermine a Segregation Law (to Save Money)
Louisiana passed a segregation law in 1890 that required separate train cars for Black and white people. A local civil rights committee led by Louis Martinet decided to stage the arrest of Daniel Desdunes, the whitest-looking-Black-guy they could find. This would challenge the law not only legally but also politically by showing that that race was too fluid and complicated a concept for segregation to work.
Martinet's major roadblock was that most railroad employees were more lazy than racist and didn't really care where people sat unless they were Black enough for someone to complain about it. This subpar work ethic was encouraged by railroad executives, as properly enforcing segregation meant they would have to buy extra rail cars, which was really expensive. They simply loved money more than they hated Black people, you see.
Since the railroad's efforts to undermine segregation undermined Marinet's efforts to undermine segregation even harder, the two made natural allies. Several railroad officials agreed to help Martinet out of sheer greed, provided he didn't tell anyone they were involved, which is why we totally don't know all about this today. The executives warned a few key employees in advance that Desdunes was secretly Black, and they should not only actually care for once, but literally stop the entire goddamn train in its tracks in the middle of New Orleans and have him arrested and hauled off as a public spectacle. Which they promptly did. Hooray for equality?
Desdunes's case was delayed when the presiding judge suddenly disappeared without a trace and then dismissed on unrelated technicalities. The committee was forced to repeat this whole process again with another dude named Homer Plessy.
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) backfired when the Supreme Court fined Plessy $25 and created the infamous "separate but equal" doctrine, legitimizing decades of segregation.
A Deranged Politician Died Trying to Assassinate A Supreme Court Justice Over a Marriage Scam
Let us introduce you to David S. Terry: the pro-slavery lawyer elected to the California Supreme Court the same year he kidnapped a crooked sheriff over a stash of secret gold. He ultimately rose to Chief Justice of California, a position he vacated spectacularly by killing an anti-Slavery U.S. Senator in a duel and fleeing the state to join the Confederacy.
Terry tried to restart his political career in postwar California but failed due to vile accusations that he was some sort of murderous traitor. So, he instead went back to being a lawyer and married one of his clients, Sarah Althea Hill, a woman who was falsely claiming to be the secret wife of a millionaire U.S. Senator so she could divorce him for half his money. After a long legal battle that involved Hill threatening to kill witnesses and waving guns at them in open court, Terry threatening a federal judge, and just so much fraud, their case was finally dismissed in 1888 by Supreme Court Justice Stephen J. Field, who acted as a regular federal judge part-time. Mr. and Ms. Crazy did not take the verdict well: Hill went for a gun and got tackled by U.S. Marshals, while Terry savagely punched the marshals before reaching into his jacket, whipping out a giant, concealed Bowie Knife and getting tackled by civilian bystanders, as well as U.S. Marshal David Neagle.
Field gave Terry six months for contempt and Hill one month. That might seem light considering how many federal officials they had just tried to murder, but Terry didn't agree. He so repeatedly, strenuously, publicly proclaimed how hard he was going to absolutely murder the shit out of Justice Field that newspapers began reporting on the upcoming assassination attempt. After Terry's release, the U.S. Attorney General assigned Marshal Neagle to protect Field from Terry. Yes, one bodyguard.
Terry proceeded to track Field Down to a train station cafe and began beating his head in like a pinata, in broad daylight, in front of nearly 100 witnesses. Marshal Neagle ordered Terry to please stop savaging the Supreme Court Justice, but Terry ignored Neagle, reached into his jacket ... and was immediately shot dead. Hill was carted off to a mental asylum and died there 50 years later.
Terry's local sheriff friend arrested Neagle (and, briefly, Field) for murdering Terry, which quickly escalated into a ridiculously complicated case. The first issue, you see, was that merely charging Neagle, a federal officer, with a state crime was like crashing a clown car full of lawyers into a pile of touchy constitutional questions labeled "state's rights." The second issue is that no federal law specifically said U.S. Marshals could act as bodyguards, which meant that same goddamn clown car backed right the hell up and crashed into another pile of touchy constitutional questions labeled "implied presidential powers." Ironically, this meant Neagle was held in jail until the Supreme Court was called in to sort this mess out.
Justice Field recused himself for super obvious reasons. Still, six of the other eight justices crassly showed their own personal bias against being murdered by ruling that, yes, the constitution implies that they can have bodyguards. Oh, and they also ruled that state governments can't prosecute federal officers for official acts, reaffirming federal supremacy over state law.
Judges Absolutely Cannot Be Sued (Even The One Who Ordered the Police to Beat up a Defense Attorney)
In the United States, all judges have blanket immunity against being sued for their rulings. Yes, even if their rulings are heinous, insane, and wildly illegal. There are virtually no exceptions to this.
This has firmly been the law since 1978 when the Supreme Court ruled local Indiana judge Harold Stump was immune from Linda Sparkman's lawsuit. Linda's mom had falsely told Stump that Linda was "slightly r*****d" and hanging out with older boys. However, Linda was pestering Stump with a lawsuit because he immediately and illegally ordered her sterilized against her will under the false guise of an appendectomy while wildly flaunting any semblance of judicial procedure. It is possible to see how some people could take issue with something so rude.
In 1989, L.A. county Judge Raymond Mireles put judicial immunity to its next test when an overworked public defender, Howard Waco, was a few minutes late to Mireles's morning calendar call because he was waiting to represent his client in a different courtroom down the hall. Mireles slightly escalated the situation by ordering two random LAPD officers to go beat up and arrest Waco. To be fair, Mireles later tried to cover his ass by claiming this was just a non-obvious joke, but also, to be fair, he was knowingly telling two members of the 1980s LAPD to go "bring me a piece of him" (or something along those lines). Whatever Mireles said, the officers enthusiastically complied: Waco was ambushed from behind and dragged backward out of another judge's courtroom and down the hall while the police shouted mean names and slammed him into walls. The officers finally deposited Waco in Mireles's courtroom by literally slamming his face through the actual swinging doors.
Waco sued the police for excessive force, obviously, but he also sued Mireles in spite of the Stump v. Sparkman ruling, and this went to the Supreme Court - the only time a case involving "Waco" and "excessive force" would be a national issue. Waco claimed that judges aren't allowed to send the police to beat up lawyers for trivial infractions, but the Supreme Court was unconvinced and ruled in Mireles v. Waco that Mireles had technically ordered the beating in an official capacity and was therefore immune from lawsuit. However, this didn't mean Mireles was immune from all consequences: he was boycotted by public defenders and ultimately transferred to a new courtroom that was closer to his house anyway. The LAPD announced their officers would make the bailiff beat people up instead next time and then stopped all instances of excessive force forever.
A Japanese-American Civil Rights Hero was Forced to Hitchhike 1,500 Miles to His Own Prison Sentence
Before the Japanese-Amerian internment began, there was the rather obscure Japanese-American curfew, which stated that Americans with ancestors from the wrong archipelago weren't allowed out after dark. University of Washington student Gordon Hirabayashi initially complied with the curfew, but then he got his internment order. So, he broke curfew by waltzing straight into an FBI office after dark to announce he wasn't complying with internment. After all, what TRUE AMERICAN would ever tell a bunch of federal employees to go screw themselves, rant about their constitutional rights, or claim the federal government has turned tyrannical?
This made Hirabayashi the only known person to directly defy the Japanese-American internment order. It also made Hirabayashi super-arrested. His case went to the Supreme court, which really, really didn't want to rule on internment, so in Hirabayashi v. United States (1943), the court did the legal equivalent of twisting themselves into a pretzel and ruled racist curfews were constitutional, while blatantly ignoring internment. The infamous Korematsu v. United States ruling wouldn't happen until someone whose *only* grievance was being dumped in an internment camp sued over their rights.
Hirabayashi was sentenced to 60 days in prison for being outside at night with racially disqualifying ancestors, but he demanded his sentence be increased to 90 days so he could go to a nicer federal prison. The court in Seattle agreed, but then the local government said they didn't have the money to transport him to the prison in Arizona. So, Hirabayashi asked if he could hitchhike the 1,500 miles to his own prison sentence, and the court said yes.
Exhausted after both a long road trip and committing 0.00 act(s) of sabotage on behalf of The Emperor, Hirabayashi finally arrived ... and the prison officials told him to go home because he had weird paperwork that they didn't want to sort out. Hirabayashi demanded they let him into prison anyway, so they told him to go wander off, get some food and watch a movie while they figured it out. Then he came back and served his sentence. Then the government sent Hirabayashi back to prison for draft evasion (he was a conscientious objector). However, America eventually recognized its mistake and overturned his curfew violation conviction in, uh, 1987. Oh, and the prison Hirabayashi was held in was torn down, turned into a park, and renamed after him. At the dedication ceremony in 1999, Hirabayashi said, "The Constitution is primarily a scrap of paper. It comes to life with citizens who make something out of it, who commit themselves to it."
The Supreme Court Ruled That a Sikh-American was Caucasian, but not White
Back in the early 20th century, there was a fascinatingly awful line of thinking, most famously held by friggin' Gandhi, which argued that racism was totally fine, you guys, but some or all Indians should be considered white people for purposes of discrimination.
After World War I, Sikh-American U.S. Army Veteran Bhagat Sing Thind wanted his naturalized American citizenship. At the time, American law explicitly said that only "free white persons" and "aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent" could become naturalized citizens, as opposed to today, where the same rule is merely implied. Thind, who had been born in India's Punjab region and had a light complexion, used the aforementioned theory to claim he was now a white American.
What followed was a very confused parade of immigration officials and judges getting their boss's boss's boss's boss and asking, "but what exactly is whiteness?". Thind was granted and un-granted citizenship multiple times before the Supreme Court was called in to determine this dude's race. Thind's heroic lawyers argued that *ahem* Thind constituted a full-blooded Aryan that was descended from the conquerors of India with limited racial mixing over history because "The high-caste Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the Negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint."
The Supreme Court tried finding a neat, scientific answer "as to what constitutes a proper racial division," but eventually realized that this was literally impossible. So, the Court basically gave up and ruled that Thind was anthropologically caucasian but still wasn't white because he just wasn't. Also, all naturalized Indian-Americans could then be retroactively stripped of their citizenship.
Ernesto Miranda Was Later Murdered, and His Killers Went Free After Ignoring Their Miranda Rights
After impoverished manual laborer Ernesto Miranda was tricked into confessing to a brutal rape and armed robbery in Arizona in 1963, he took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction and gave us Miranda Rights. It's a truly inspiring story ... until you realize that Miranda was a serial sex offender and habitual criminal who was re-convicted of that very same rape and armed robbery at his retrial without the prosecution using his confession.
After nearly 10 years in prison, Miranda was paroled and began selling autographed Miranda warning cards for $1.50 or $2 each. These came in handy whenever he got arrested for all the new crimes he committed.
In 1976, a few weeks after his last prison release, Miranda went to a bar and got into an argument with a pair of illegal immigrants over a $2 or $3 card game. Apparently, smoothing things over by handing out some of the autographed Miranda warning cards he literally had in his pocket wasn't an option, so Miranda got super-duper murdered to death in front of tons of witnesses. The Policeman who had arrested Miranda in 1963 reported, "So many officers just couldn't wait to call me or come by and tell me that this guy had met his demise."
The police quickly detained two incredibly suspicious individuals, Fernando Rodriguez and another guy simply called "Moreno", and read them their Miranda rights. They both claimed they didn't need lawyers because they were totally innocent and started yapping. This worked for Moreno, who said he didn't know anyone or anything and got released ... and immediately bragged to his roommate about how he had just gotten away with murder. As for Rodriguez, he explained that he had gotten into a fight with Miranda, but then he simply got up and left the bar without murdering Miranda so he could change the coincidentally bloody shirt he was still wearing when the police arrived. You know, just like what any other law-abiding, blood-drenched citizen fleeing a murder scene would do.
This ... also worked for Rodriguez because the police asked the District Attorney to charge him with murder, but the DA inexplicably said no and released him. A few hours after that screw-up, all those eyewitnesses positively ID'd the two men as Miranda's killers, so the police went out to arrest them again, but they had already fled, never to be seen again. It's hard to prove a counterfactual, but if these two guys had kept their mouths shut and demanded lawyers instead of blabbering like the guilty idiots they were, they might have still been in custody when the police got airtight evidence. The moral of this story is that lawyers are for losers, and you should never exercise your rights because that makes you look guilty.
"Jane Roe" from Roe v. Wade Never Had an Abortion and Later became a Christian Pro-Life Activist
Now, if you thought just this entry title would piss everybody off, you'd be wrong. All five paragraphs will piss everybody off. How dare you underestimate us like that. So -- *ahem* -- Jane Roe was the legal alias for Norma McCorvey, a 23-year-old lesbian who became pregnant with her third child in 1969 and tried to get an abortion by falsely claiming she had been gang-raped by Black, white, and Hispanic men.
Now, to clarify, none of that rip-roaring family fun was legally relevant. What mattered was that Texas didn't believe McCorvey, and Lawyers Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington needed to find literally one person who had been denied an abortion in Texas for literally any reason in order to challenge the state's abortion laws. McCorvey became that person almost by chance. Her job was to satisfy a legal requirement and then go away.
Since it usually takes somewhat more than 9 months to get your case to the Supreme Court, McCorvey never had an abortion. She put the baby up for adoption and became a housekeeper. A few years after the ruling, McCorvey capitalized on her fame to become a prominent pro-choice activist, making pro-choice speeches, opening pro-choice foundations, and writing a book about how totally awesome being pro-choice is, you guys. Then, in 1995, came the plot twist: McCorvey announced she wasn't gay anymore, got baptized on national TV (in a backyard swimming pool), quit her job at an abortion clinic, and became a prominent pro-life activist, making pro-life speeches, opening pro-life foundations, and writing a new book about how totally awesome being pro-life is, you guys.
Plot twist #2 came in 2020 when McCorvey's "deathbed confession" was released in the form of a 79-minute documentary. McCorvey finally promised she would make her true opinions known and not lie like usual. She said that ... *drumroll please* ... she was a really complicated person that everyone kept using as a political prop. Basically, McCorvey became a pro-choice activist and renounced her homosexuality because being a housekeeper kinda sucked, and she flipped to the pro-life camp because they offered her more money and respect.
Her final opinion update was, "If a young woman wants to have an abortion, that's no skin off my ass." Then a bunch of pro-choice/life activists argued over her TRUE opinions. Regardless of your stance on abortion, at least we can all agree that Jane Roe got paid.
Top image: Sebra, Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock