BY TESSA WEBB

Given the complicated political system of the United States, and that the Supreme Court was established in 1789, I can not possibly explain the nuances and history of this institution in just a few hundred words. But hopefully, this simplified guide acts as an entry point for those who are interested in finding out more about the SCOTUS. 

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is the highest court in the USA. The American system of “checks and balances” whereby each part of the government is able to prevent the other parts from gaining too much power, incorporates three branches; 

  • the judiciary, which deals with the interpretation of the law (the SCOTUS)
  • the executive (the President) 
  • the legislative which creates the law (Congress, which is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives) 

The decisions issued by the Supreme Court have had a massive impact on civil rights and freedoms. SCOTUS has been on both sides of history; In Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the Judges voted to uphold slavery. However, they have also expanded rights such as desegregating schools in Brown V. Board of Education (1954) and legalizing same-sex marriage with Obergefell V. Hodges (2015)

The Supreme Court is made up of 9 judges, who are not elected by the people. Each judge is appointed by the President at the time of their seat opening up, and their appointment is confirmed if the majority of the 100-person Senate votes in favor. These appointments last a lifetime, with seats only opening when a judge passes or (very rarely) resigns. 

This element of the Supreme Court was brought to international attention by the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Not only was her passing a monumental occasion due to the impact that she had throughout her lifetime, but it also gave the President at the time Donald Trump the opportunity to select her replacement, conservative Amy Coney Barrett. Earlier in his presidency, Trump replaced resigning Anthony Kennedy with Brett Kavanaugh after a controversial appointment process involving allegations against Justice Kavanaugh of sexual assault

On June 30th, Kentanji Brown Jackson was sworn in as the newest member of the Supreme Court after Stephen Byer stepped down. This appointment by current President Joe Biden made history as she became the first Black female to serve on the SCOTUS.

The recently appointed Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson

Perhaps the greatest power invested in the SCOTUS is known as “judicial review”. This grants these 9 individuals the ability to judge if a decision contradicts the Constitution (or not). Ironically, this power was not granted to them explicitly in the Constitution but established as precedent in Marbury VS Madison, a court case that took place in 1803. If a certain law or right is ruled to be guaranteed in the constitution, then states must uphold it. 

When the Supreme Court issues a decision, Justices who agree with the ruling the majority reaches are known as “concurring”, while those who are in opposition are “dissenting”. Either way, they can write and share their legal opinion on the case in a public statement. Even dissenting opinions can be greatly politically impactful, shaping the legal logic of the future. 

As well as having their own ideological perspectives and political leanings, Judges generally fit into one of two legal categories; originalists, or living constitutionalists. Originalists attempt to interpret the Constitution based on the intentions of the Founding Fathers when they wrote the text and believe that the Constitution is a static document that should not change. Living constitutionalists attempt to interpret the Constitution in the context of the current time, arguing it can evolve to keep up with society’s changes.

Front row, left to right: Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Associate Justice Clarence
Thomas, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer, and Associate
Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Back row, left to right: Associate Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh,
Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, and Associate Justice Amy
Coney Barrett. (Image credit: Library of Supreme Court)

The current court is considered a 6-3 conservative majority. This ideological composition is reflected in the recent wave of decisions, with the most high profile being the overturning of Roe V Wade (1973) on the 24th of June with their Dobbs V Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022) ruling. 

This ruling does not make abortion illegal in the USA but declares it up to individual states to decide their own laws. This is a demonstration of the American Federal system in action, whereby powers are divided between being held at a national level (controlled by the President and Congress) and being left to state governments. Many states had trigger laws which immediately shut down providers and criminalized abortion as soon as the ruling was reached.

Protestors outside the Supreme Court, 2022 (Bloomberg)

This is the first time in US history that the protection to the right of a US citizen has been repealed, and has sparked fears that other rights protected based on the same legal logic may soon also be overturned. This includes the right to same-sex and interracial marriage. 

The judiciary was once considered the least dangerous branch to the political rights of US citizens by the Founding Fathers, with Alexander Hamilton stating in the Federalist Papers that it had “no influence over either the sword (war-making, like the executive branch) or the purse (like congress, the legislative branch).” But as decisions roll in, there is no doubt that these 9 unelected Justices are having a huge role in shaping the future of the USA. Unfortunately, it is a future that is beginning to look more and more like the past.

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