Top 10 Most Controversial Court Cases

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Top 10 Most Controversial Court Cases

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Matt Klem
These trials changed history! For this list, we'll be looking at landmark lawsuits and trials from the United States that were surrounded by controversy due to the nature of the case. Our countdown includes United States v. Nixon, Bush v. Gore, The People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson, and more!
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Top 10 Most Controversial Court Cases


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Most Controversial Court Cases.

For this list, we’ll be looking at landmark lawsuits and trials from the United States that were surrounded by controversy due to the nature of the case.

Is there a famous trial you wholly disagreed with? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

#10: United States v. Nixon (1974)

One of the biggest political scandals in the United States involved former president, Richard Nixon. Five men were arrested after trying to force their way into the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in an attempt to gain leverage for the upcoming election. When the appointed special prosecutor subpoenaed tapes and papers tying Nixon to the crime, he took it to trial. The judge denied the request to quash the subpoena so Nixon went over his head to the Supreme Court. Nixon’s attorney tried several arguments including “executive privilege” to convince the court to not force the delivery of evidence. It failed. Nixon was ordered to turn over everything, which ultimately led to his incrimination, and Nixon’s eventual resignation.

#9: State v. Norman (1988)

When you hear the term “self-defense”, you typically think of some action being taken to protect yourself in the event of an unwanted attack. But what can be done if you’ve been subjected to harm repeatedly and chose to act before it happened again? This was the focus of a case in North Carolina involving Judy Norman. After years of reported abuse from her husband, Norman had had enough and shot him while he was sleeping. When charged for her crime, she cited “self-defense” as her reasoning, given the long history of mental and physical abuse. Judy was ultimately found guilty of voluntary manslaughter because the Court ruled that a self-defense claim couldn't be made since the defendant wasn’t in “imminent” fear of serious bodily harm or death.

#8: Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)

Jim Obergefell and his partner John Arthur were married in Maryland where same sex-marriage is legal. But as they were residents of Ohio where it is not permitted, the state would not recognize their new marital status. They took it to court stating that the ban on same-sex marriage was discriminatory. After losing a court battle with the state, and the passing of John Arthur in 2013, Obergefell took the case to the Supreme Court. The case illuminated the differing opinions amongst individuals on who should have the right to marry. The court sided with Jim, and ordered that all 50 states recognize same-sex marriage in the same way that marriages between spouses of the opposite sex are.

#7: The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes [aka Scopes Trial] (1925)

Nicknamed the “Scopes Monkey Trial”, this case went to court without any wrongdoing having been done. In 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union wanted to challenge a Tennessee state law that banned the teaching of evolution in school. John Scopes, a local science teacher, agreed to be the defendant, and a trial ensued. It attracted national attention with its high profile prosecutor (former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan), and the controversial subject of creationism versus evolution. The ACLU lost the case, and the appeals, but garnered the real win as it triggered a wave of awareness around the teaching of modern science in classrooms.

#6: Bush v. Gore (2000)

During the 2000 US presidential election, George W. Bush won the state of Florida by less than 2,000 votes, triggering an automatic recount for certain counties. Some of them couldn’t meet the deadline to submit their new counts so the Florida Supreme Court ordered a state-wide recount. Fearing it would cost him the election, Bush challenged the ruling via the US Supreme Court, hoping to avoid the votes from being tallied again. Gore had already won the popular vote, but both candidates needed to win Florida to become president. The case drew national attention as to how votes are counted, the use of punch cards for voting, and of course who would ultimately become president. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in Bush’s favor, denying Gore any further chance at winning.

#5: State of Florida v. George Zimmerman (2013)

George Zimmerman was accused of murder after shooting African-American Trayvon Martin during an alleged altercation in early 2012. The controversy around the trial was whether or not Zimmerman acted in self-defense, or targeted Martin due to his background. The public felt that it was yet another case of a caucasian man going after a black person for no other reason than his race. Zimmerman was found not guilty, which triggered the start of the “Black Lives Matter'' movement. People rallied in protest regarding incidents of mistreatment of people of color, citing Martin’s death as another unnecessary example.

#4: Casey Anthony (2011)

After being reported missing by her grandmother, the body of Caylee Anthony was found near her home. The mother Casey was charged with first-degree murder after she provided false and conflicting reports on the whereabouts of her daughter. A multitude of physical evidence implied Casey’s guilt, but left enough doubt in jurors’ minds that she was acquitted of all murder charges and found guilty of misleading the police. Media coverage of the inquiry was immense, rivaling that of the OJ Simpson trial. Public perception was that Casey wanted out of being a parent and took unfathomable actions to achieve that goal. The not guilty verdict was met with sharp criticism from the public, while others rallied behind Casey.

#3: The People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson (1995)

With OJ Simpson accused of murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend, Ron Goldman, the People v. Simpson trial was perhaps one of the most public trials in history. From the infamous white Bronco chase, to the glove that didn’t fit, there was nothing about this case that was kept behind closed doors. As a result, public opinion on Simpson’s guilt seemed to be split along racial lines. That combined with the physical evidence presented, and Simpson’s lawyers creative use of catchphrases provided viewers with plenty to keep their attention. It came to an end in October of 1995 when 100 million people watched Simpson’s not guilty verdict come in. The debate over his innocence continues to this day.

#2: Chelsea Manning Trial (2013)

When you think of leaks of classified information, it’s typically Edward Snowden you hear about. But in 2010, intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning began leaking sensitive documents, videos, and other materials regarding both the Iraq and Afghan Wars to the website Wikileaks. After pleading guilty in February of 2013 to 10 of the 22 charges, she read a statement that indicated the leaks were meant “to show the true cost of war”. Details about the conflicts found in the leaked documents provided a stark contrast to what the public had been told about the wars. Many military supporters found her actions deplorable, while those in the anti-war camp championed her choice to expose the truth of overseas conflicts.

#1: Roe v. Wade (1973)

Back in 1969, Norma McCorvey, AKA Jane Roe, wanted to end her pregnancy, but due to an anti-abortion law in her state of Texas, she was not permitted to do so. Believing the laws to be unconstitutional, she sued the state and won. The landmark case set a precedent for abortion laws across the United States, but has also been repeatedly challenged in many situations since. It also essentially ignited a long standing debate between “pro life” and “pro choice” advocates. With the 2021 passing of the Texas Heartbeat Act, Roe vs Wade is once again in the spotlight, with many interested in how events in this new bill will affect the efficacy of that 1973 decision.
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