The Supreme Court has the most powerful judges in the United States. But common citizens are often behind pivotal cases that those justices decide -- everyday Americans who, by taking their cases to court, made history.
America was reminded of that this week, when the high court ruled in favor of Edith Windsor. She's an 84-year-old New York woman who sued to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act so that the federal government would recognize her marriage to her late partner, Thea Spyer. On a much broader scale, the case was aimed to ensure that legally wed same-sex spouses could get the same benefits as traditional male-female ones.
Windsor may be the latest, but she's not the first American whose name is linked to Supreme Court rulings that have altered society. Below are a few such examples from the country's more than two centuries in existence.
WHO: William Marbury
CASE: Marbury v. Madison (1803)
HIS STORY: Just before he left office, President John Adams commissioned William Marbury -- among dozens of others -- to become a justice of the peace. But his secretary of state didn't follow through. And when James Madison took over that position, he didn't either -- but purposefully, per the direction of new President Thomas Jefferson, who didn't want members of the opposing political party to take office. So Marbury sued.
Chief Justice John Marshall issued the landmark ruling in the case. In the short term, he decided Marbury would not become a justice of the peace in the District of Columbia, as he'd wished.
But the opinion proved far more significant, long term, because it established judicial review -- the idea the courts could strike down laws and the like it deemed unconstitutional. As Marshall wrote, "A Law repugnant to the Constitution is void."
WHO: Dred Scott
CASE: Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
HIS STORY: Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia. He and his family later were moved with their owners to Alabama and eventually Missouri, where he was sold to a U.S. Army doctor.
Together, they moved around -- including in the free territory of Wisconsin -- before ending up back in Missouri. Scott was there when his owner died, after which he sued in St. Louis city court for his freedom -- saying that, for some time at least, he had been free.
So was Scott his own man, or was he still the property of his late owner's widow? The Supreme Court ruled it was the latter, that as a slave he didn't have the rights as white Americans. That included the right to sue in federal court. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote, "We think they are ... not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word 'citizens' in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for."
WHO: Homer Plessy
CASE: Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
HIS STORY: In June 1892, Homer Plessy sat down in the whites-only compartment of a train rolling through Louisiana. A conductor challenged him, and he was arrested for violating state law. He was ? white, not 100% that he'd need to avoid a $25 fine or 20 days in jail.
As with others involved in some landmark cases, Plessy was not necessarily caught off guard: He'd been among a group working with the Eastern Louisiana Railroad Company to protest the state law requiring rail companies to provide "separate but equal" places for white and nonwhite customers, and for patrons to follow suit.
The Supreme Court eventually got the case, which had to do not just with Plessy's arrest but more generally state and local Jim Crow laws that had institutionalized segregation including in much of what had been the former Confederacy. Justice Henry Brown, in his majority ruling, upheld such laws in calling it a "fallacy (to assume) enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority."
WHO: The Brown family
CASE: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)
THEIR STORY: There was a school seven blocks from Linda Brown's Topeka, Kansas, home, but she couldn't go to it. But because the third-grader was black, and Sumner Elementary was all-white, she had to walk several blocks and catch a bus to attend Monroe Elementary.
Her father Oliver and other parents petitioned for their children to attend Sumner, then sued to city's board of education after they were denied. The Browns were the first name listed on that lawsuit. They would later become the name at the front of the Supreme Court's milestone ruling, even as others fought the same fight: In December 1952, the court had similar cases on its docket from Delaware, South Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Chief Justice Earl Warren's decision effectively overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson that an earlier Supreme Court had passed decades before, which had helped make segregation possible. "The doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," Warren wrote. "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
WHO: Ernesto Miranda
CASE: Miranda v. Arizona (1966)