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What was the rights revolution?

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The phrase “Rights Revolution” refers to the enormously significant decision by the United States Supreme Court to allow for the adjudication of civil rights-related legal cases in federal courts, as opposed to lower court decisions restricting such cases to state courts.  The 1961 Monroe v. Pape decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that potential civil rights-related court cases could be adjudicated at the federal, rather than state, level, marked a sharp rebuke to the notion that individual states could make their own determinations with regard to vital questions of constitutionally-protected rights.  As Charles R. Epp wrote in his study of this period, The Rights Revolution: Lawyers, Activists and Supreme Courts in Comparative Perspective, “The decision [Monroe v. Pape]. . . was part of a much larger transformation in which the Supreme Court, for the first time in its history, began deciding and supporting individual rights claims in a sustained way.”  Subsequent to that decision, a number of additional Supreme Court decisions, including Miranda v. State of Arizona (1966), were issued that continued to emphasize the importance of individual rights.

The phrase “Rights Revolution” has since been applied globally to refer to similar transformations in civil societies, with the so-called “Arab Spring” representing the most recent – if largely symbolic in most cases – manifestation of this phenomenon.

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The term "rights revolution" is most typically used to refer to the time in the 1960s and early 1970s in which Supreme Court cases greatly expanded civil rights and civil liberties.

During this time, the Court made many decisions that extended rights in new ways.  For example, there was the Loving v. Virginia case in which the Court announced that bans on interracial marriage were illegal.  There was also the Griswold case in which the Court found a right to privacy in the Constitution that was used to overturn a Connecticut law banning contraception.  In the area of civil liberties, there were several important cases such as Miranda v. Arizona, Gideon v. Wainwright and Mapp v. Ohio.  These and many other cases extended the rights of accused criminal defendants.

Because rights were expanded so much during this time, it is known as the rights revolution.

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