Dead White Men Are Still Cool! The 5 Most Influential Supreme Court Justices in American History

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Supreme Court justices may not get the same attention and glamour as, let’s say, the president but at the end of the day they are the ones who have made some of the biggest and lasting changes to American law and society — even more so than many people in congress, whose job it is to actually make laws. Some warm the seats of the Supreme Court longer than others and some leave more of aimpact. Those who left the most indelible impression on our country have the great honor of being included on this list of the most influential Supreme Court justices!

5 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

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President Teddy Roosevelt appointed Oliver Wendell Holmes to a seat on the Supreme Court in 1902 and he served there until he was just a few months shy of his 91st birthday. He was known for his short, quotable decisions and for how often he dissented, even when it disappointed the president who had nominated him to his position. But mostly importantly, Holmes is known as the writer of the decision saying that the First Amendment is void in a case where a person’s speech poses a “clear and present danger” to those around him. He was the first to use the example of shouting fire in a crowded theater and stood up for the concept again when he protested the Espionage and Sedition Acts during WWI.

4 Hugo Black

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The honorable Hugo Black didn’t take the same tack as the last few justices on this list. In fact, he was an advocate of judicial restraint and believed that the Supreme Court shouldn’t be involved in deciding economic or political policy, even if they had the opportunity. He believed that the job of a Supreme Court justice was to make sure that the constitution was being enforced not to be creative with it. That meant that there were times when he opposed all of his liberal colleagues on the Warren court and times when he was the sole liberal voice, specifically on issues of communism and McCarthyism.

3 William J. Brennan Jr.

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Associate Justice Brennan was one of the long-sitting justices on the Supreme Court and therefore was there both when the court was heavily liberal and when it leaned heavily conservative. And through it all he remained consistent, arguing against the death penalty, for abortion rights and the rights of individuals over corporations. But Justice Brennan’s is particularly known for his defense of the bill of rights. While eight different presidents came in and out of office, Brennan fought to guarantee these liberties, not only at the federal level, but at the state level and to extend their reach as far as possible.

2 Earl Warren

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From 1953 to 1969 Earl Warren kept up the work that the honorable John Marshall had started, strengthening the standing of the Supreme Court in relation to the other two branches of government. He was a believer in judicial activism: using the court to achieve social goals, not just as a place to interpret the law. And while he may not have been the most accomplished legalist to ever hold the position, he was an expert at playing the politics of the court to achieve the results he wanted. The most famous example is Brown vs. the Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional which led to the desegregation beyond just the schools that the case had originally been about.

1 John Marshall

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John Marshall is to the Supreme Court as George Washington is to the presidency. But he wasn’t actually the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. That honor is held by John Jay, who was nominated by Washington on the day the role of the Chief Justice was signed into law. The first three chief justices served for a total of twelve years but Marshall was chief justice for nearly thirty-five years. He was appointed right before John Adams left office, leaving Marshall as a strong federalist in a government primarily controlled by Thomas Jefferson’s party, the Republicans, who believed in stronger states and weaker national government. But by using the cases that came before him, Marshall spent his thirty-five years on the bench strengthening the power, reputation and responsibilities of the Supreme Court and the Constitution and with them, the federal government.

Unfortunately for us, although fortunately for history, the list of really impressive and influential Supreme Court Justices goes well beyond five. So even though we’ve argued our case for these five being the most influential feel free to write a dissenting opinion here!

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