Give me liberty or give me death! -- or at least give me a respectable top-40 list.
In honor of Nolos 40th anniversary as America's pioneer do-it-yourself legal publisher, we're looking back -- not just at our own past, but at milestones in our nation's legal history. To that end, our own team of expert lawyer-editors got together and assembled top-40 lists in four categories -- speeches, historical documents, laws, and landmark Supreme Court cases -- that they consider the most important legal documents in American history. Think Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, The Bill of Rights, or the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.
There were many documents we would have loved to include, but those we did include share one thing in common: they mark an important idea, movement, or event that figured in our nation's history. And of course, we were somewhat biased toward documents that capture the Nolo law for all spirit, like Thomas Paines Common Sense, which contains a powerful, stirring argument for democracy.
Get inspired! Browse our top-40 collection now!
From Patrick Henrys legendary pronouncement, Give me liberty or give me death! to Martin Luther King, Jr.s famous I Have a Dream speech, for centuries American orators have changed attitudes, spurred action, or summed up a nations collective sorrow. Here are 40 of the greatest (listed in order from the oldest to the most recent).
A lot can be learned about American history by reading what our forebears and their contemporaries wrote -- contracts, declarations of independence, death warrants, executive orders, and the like. Some of these historical documents changed the way we governed ourselves (the Declaration of Independence), or expanded rights for certain groups of our citizens (the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments). Others serve as a warning of how easily we can collectively run astray of American principles of freedom and respect (the 1692 Death Warrant of Bridget Bishop or Executive Order 9066, which relocated Americans of Japanese descent to internment camps during World War II). Here are 40 historical documents that mark important points, both good and bad, in our nations story (listed in order from the oldest to the most recent).
The United States Supreme Court has played a large role in U.S. history, at times reflecting the mass sentiment of the era (upholding slavery in Dred Scott v. Sandford) and at other times disregarding popular views to extend rights to our citizens (as in Brown v. Board of Education when it ruled that separate is not equal). Other famous Supreme Court decisions established the Courts own power (Marbury v. Madison) or reshaped the political landscape (for example, by ruling on voter redistricting in Baker v. Carr). Here are 40 of the most important U.S. Supreme Court decisions (listed in order from the oldest to the most recent).
The Court decides that it is the ultimate arbiter of the U.S. Constitution.
The federal government has implied power -- and the states cant interfere with it.
The Court makes the Commerce Clause very broad indeed.
In perhaps the worst decision in its history, the Court sides with slavery and declares that blacks cannot be citizens of the United States.
An offhand remark creates the doctrine that corporations have rights just like people.
The Court embarks on an era of separate but equal, allowing segregation in public places.
The Court rules against a group of bakers -- and begins an era in which it strikes down progressive laws seeking to regulate working conditions.
The Court strikes a blow for competition -- and a blow against John D. Rockefeller.
The Court makes an enemy of President Roosevelt by striking down a key provision of the New Deal.
The Court allows the internment of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II.
The Court invalidates restrictions on the ownership of property by non-whites.
The Court says separate is not equal -- and begins the end of segregation in public life.
The Court says police must follow the Fourth Amendment -- or have any evidence they find excluded from trial.
The Court enters the debate over voting districts -- and reshapes the political landscape.
Prayer in public schools violates the separation of church and state.
Criminal defendants have the right to an attorney, even if they cant afford to pay for one.
The Court sides with Congress in the major constitutional challenge to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The New York Times runs an advertisement with factual errors -- and gets First Amendment protection anyway.
Voting districts must be roughly equal in population.
The Court rules that the First Amendment guarantees a right to privacy, even though it doesnt explicitly say so.
Miranda rights are born.
The Supreme Court justices decide that discrimination based on gender is unconstitutional -- but dont agree on much else.
Even juvenile defendants get certain Constitutional rights when they are charged with a crime.
The Court strikes down laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
The Court fashions the concept of disparate impact, meaning an employer can be guilty of discrimination even without proof of intent.
The Court creates the Lemon test for deciding cases involving the separation of church and state.
Women have the constitutional right to terminate pregnancy.
The Court rejects Nixons assertion of unqualified executive privilege and orders the release of the Watergate tapes, ultimately toppling his presidency.
The Court finds that the death penalty is not cruel and unusual punishment.
Affirmative action is okay, but quotas arent.
Flag burning is a form of expressive speech protected by the First Amendment.
There needs to be clear and convincing evidence of a patients wishes before ending life-sustaining medical treatment.
A woman has the right to terminate her pregnancy, but the government can put a lot of restrictions on that right.
The Court curbs the Commerce Clause and strikes down a school gun ban.
The Court gives Internet content the highest level of First Amendment protection.
The Court allows the Boy Scouts to bar gays from becoming troop leaders.
The justices end the Florida recount and put George W. Bush in the White House.
The Court strikes down laws prohibiting sexual acts between consenting adults.
The Second Amendment guarantees an individuals right to bear arms, at least in ones home.
The Court uses the First Amendment to strike down limits on corporate campaign contributions.
Congress, presidents, activists, and voters have all influenced the enactment and repeal of our nations federal laws. Those laws have influenced American lives in many ways by changing the way we do business (the Interstate Commerce Act and the Sherman Antitrust Act), preserving our environment (the Endangered Species Act and the Act to Establish Yellowstone National Park), and protecting our citizens (Keating-Owen Child Labor Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act). Here are 40 of our countrys most important federal laws, some still existing, some now greatly expanded, and some thankfully no longer with us (listed in order from the oldest to the most recent).