The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States.
Litigants dissatisfied with a lower court decision may appeal to the
Supreme Court, although very few cases ever reach the court. A ruling
of the Supreme Court cannot be appealed. As Justice Robert Jackson
once explained: “The [Supreme] Court is not final because it is
infallible; the court is infallible because it is final.” There are
currently nine Supreme Court justices, who, like all federal judges,
are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Responsibilities of the
Supreme CourtAn important feature of
the American legal system is the practice of judicial review. The most
important exercise of judicial review is by the Supreme Court. The
court can determine whether a statute or executive action conforms to
the rules and principles laid down in the Constitution. It can strike
down laws that it considers unconstitutional. Judicial review does not
belong exclusively to the Supreme Court; in appropriate cases, every
court may strike down laws that violate the Constitution. Although
judicial review adds flexibility to the Constitution—allowing it to be
interpreted for changing times—this power is not explicitly stated in
In the years following
the adoption of the Constitution, the Court and Congress debated
whether the judiciary actually had the power of judicial review. The
issue was resolved in 1803, when in the case of Marbury v.
Madison, the Court firmly established the power of the
judiciary to review acts of Congress and decide if they were
constitutional. Chief Justice John Marshall reasoned that the
Constitution was the highest law of the nation, and that with respect
to congressional legislation, the Constitution was “superior…law,
unchangeable by ordinary means.” Consequently, Madison argued, if the
judiciary interpreted a law or statute as contradicting the
Constitution, the courts could nullify it.
the common-sense view that within the three branches of government,
courts are especially qualified to rule whether legislation is
constitutional. Marshall held that judicial power resided in the court’s
authority to interpret the Constitution. This principle has been
accepted ever since. Although the judicial override has more often
been a threat than a reality—by 1998 the Supreme Court had struck down
federal laws and executive orders only 127 times—it still is a
powerful tool. However, as with all federal courts, some Americans
have questioned whether the Supreme Court should have that power
without its members being elected by the people.
The Supreme Court
decides appeals and constitutional issues. It also has jurisdiction
over various kinds of other cases. These cases include those involving
public officials such as ambassadors or consuls, or those where a
state is a party in the case.
Influences on the Supreme
CourtDespite its authority on
paper, the Supreme Court is influenced by certain factors. When a
vacancy occurs because of death, retirement, or impeachment of a
Supreme Court justice, the president appoints a new justice who then
must be confirmed by a majority of the Senate. As a result, the
president and the Senate can affect the composition and sentiment of
the court. For example, the court changed dramatically during the
American Civil War (1861-1865), when President Abraham Lincoln
appointed five justices to a body that had been controlled before the
war by Southerners. Individual justices are also influenced by
personal background, political views, relationships with other judges,
and even by the clerks who assist them.
The Solicitor General,
who represents the federal government at the Supreme Court, also
shapes the court’s agenda. As the chief government lawyer in cases
before the courts of appeals, the Solicitor General decides which
cases the government should ask the court to review and what the
government’s position will be in them. The Solicitor General’s power
to petition the court to review cases is important because the Supreme
Court can rule only on cases that are brought before it. The court
cannot simply choose to examine a law or case of its own accord.
Finally the Supreme
Court is influenced by what it believes the majority of American
people support. This influence of public opinion was evident in the
1930s, when a conservative court at first opposed the agricultural
policies of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. These polices,
which curtailed farm production in an effort to stabilize the
agricultural economy, expanded the power of the federal government by
giving it a much larger role in regulating agriculture and commerce.
After Roosevelt won substantial majorities in the presidential
elections of 1936 and 1940, however, the same justices accepted
legislation similar to what they had earlier called unconstitutional.
Another example is the 1972 decision Roe v. Wade, in
which the Supreme Court ruled that a woman has a constitutional right
to an abortion during the first six months of pregnancy. This ruling
is often seen as a judicial response to a significant change in the
people’s attitudes toward women and their right to privacy.
Current Trends and IssuesPresently the judiciary
has several challenges. The first involves a debate over the proper
limits of the Supreme Court’s activism. This debate pits judicial
fundamentalists, or strict constructionists, against judicial
activists, also known as loose constructionists.
believe the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution using only
its specific wording and the original intentions of its authors. In
this way, they argue, the court would serve as a gatekeeper,
maintaining the balance between the separate powers of government and
adhering to established precedents. Strict constructionists believe
that changes should come through executive and legislative actions and
through the states.
favor a liberal interpretation of the Constitution. They hold that the
authors of the Constitution did not intend to preserve an unchanging
society, but instead meant the Constitution to adapt as the needs of
the nation changed. Thus, they argue, the court should be free to
clarify the vague language of statutes and to interpret rules for
practical application. In this view, the Supreme Court considers the
constitutionality of important public issues in a society that is much
different than it was when the Constitution was written.
also believe the judiciary stands as the primary protector of minority
rights and unpopular viewpoints. Judicial activists look to the courts
to protect rights and opinions that are not widely accepted and that
might be trampled by a legislative majority. By adopting a flexible
view of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has often upheld the
rights of minority groups, such as the Amish or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
For example, the Amish have used the First Amendment to challenge the
application of states’ school laws to their children. Members of
Jehovah’s Witnesses have challenged the right of the state to draft
them for military service and have refused to allow their children to
salute the national flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.
They have turned, often successfully, to the Supreme Court to sustain
their constitutional right to dissent.