test case

Test cases refer to legal actions brought with the intention of challenging or receiving clarification on a present law. The strategy usually involves creating a “controversy” to get into a court that otherwise would not lead to a legal action because courts must have an actual dispute to hear a case. Since the goal is to make a court rule on a particular issue, litigants must strategically choose the right case to bring with beneficial facts, location, and timing so that a court makes a ruling based on the issue brought by the litigants rather than on another issue.

Litigants use test cases to get a favorable ruling by all levels of courts, but the practice most popularly has been used to get a ruling by the Supreme Court on an important issue. While used since the early history of the Supreme Court, test cases became a more popular tool in the civil rights cases of the late 19th and 20th centuries. These cases often are generated by non-profit organizations, businesses, or the government itself. Many of the most well-known cases in the history of the Supreme Court are test cases such as Plessy v. Ferguson, Korematsu v. U.S., Griswold v. Connecticut, and Brown v. Board of Education.  

The strategy of using test cases must be done in a careful manner because the result of bringing the case could be the opposite of that intended. For example, in Korematsu, the American Civil Liberties union brought a test case to challenge the legality of the federal government’s detention of Korematsu and other Japanese-Americans based on their race in the 1940s, but instead of overturning the law allowing detention, the Supreme Court affirmed the practice as a “military necessity.” These unintended outcomes of test cases can lead to long-term consequences that can be difficult to reverse in the future. Also, the outcome of the test case typically determines the outcome of many other cases waiting on the outcome, meaning the test case impacts much more than the litigants in the present case.

[Last updated in March of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]