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May 17, 2022
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Supreme Court cases business journalists should know

Throughout its history, the Supreme Court has decided numerous cases that deal with business matters. In that vein, the leaked draft decision is more than just a social issue for journalists. Whether your current beat is health care, politics, real estate, education, economy, or many others, the court’s ruling will have impacts on industries all across the country.

A basic understanding of how the court operates is a vital tool in a business journalist’s toolbox. Get familiar with the following landmark Supreme Court cases that impact today’s business journalism.

Marbury vs. Madison, 1803

This case established the Supreme Court as the ultimate decision-maker on the validity of actions passed by Congress. It gave the court the power to review any new laws for any conflicts with the Constitution and to judge whether they were consistent with its legal guidelines,  i.e. the power to declare a law unconstitutional.

McCulloch vs. Maryland, 1819

This case handed down one of the most important decisions regarding the expansion of Federal power. The case dealt with whether Congress had the right to create a central bank. The court deemed it was an implied power under the ‘elastic clause’ which essentially grants the authority of the government to make laws that are necessary for executing business. Interestingly, the Federal Reserve itself was not created until the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.

Munn vs. Illinois, 1877

This case got to the court on an appeal of an Illinois law, which set rates that private companies could charge in transporting agricultural products. The Supreme Court decided that companies that serve the public interest can be regulated by the government. Munn is the precedent for the regulation of the airline, automobile, railroad, shipping, and many other industries.

Lochner vs. New York State, 1905 and West Coast Hotel vs. Parrish, 1937

The Supreme Court originally ruled in 1905 that employees have the exclusive right to contract with their employers, and states could not pass laws that would interfere with that relationship. In the Lochner case, the state of New York limited bakers to a 60-hour workweek, which the court ruled interfered with the ‘liberty’ of the bakers given in the 14th amendment.

The 1905 decision was overturned due to the decision in 1937 that found that states can regulate and restrict workers’ ‘liberty’ when in the best interests of public health, individual worker safety, and vulnerable groups. In the Parrish case, Washington State passed a law for a minimum wage for women which was deemed ‘reasonable’ rather than arbitrary regulation by the court.

Standard Oil of New Jersey vs United States, 1911

The Supreme Court found Standard Oil guilty of monopolizing the petroleum industry through a series of anti-competitive actions. The court ordered the breakup of Standard Oil into 33 companies that would compete with one another, effectively lowering prices. Many of those companies have transformed into some of the major oil corporations today including Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell. Through the years, Standard Oil has been used as a curb on many big companies, such as General Motors, AT&T, drug makers and energy companies.

New York Times vs. Sullivan, 1964

The newspaper published an ad critical of an Alabama official, prompting him to successfully sue for libel. The court overturned the ruling, saying that in order to protect debate about public officials, journalists had the right to print what they knew to be correct. Unless a journalist had demonstrated “reckless disregard for the truth,” they could not be sued by a public figure for libel.

Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, 2008

The Supreme Court held that the first amendment bars the government from restricting independent campaign spending by corporations, independent groups, associations and labor unions. The ruling resulted in the creation of Super PACs, which are not restricted by election spending limits because they do not give money directly to candidates and therefore did not present a substantive threat of corruption. The ruling assumed that independent spending could not be corrupt because that spending would be transparent.


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