The Supreme Court is the highest governing body that is known to us as the people of the United States of America. In the 1998-99 term, the Supreme Court is slated to hear cases on subjects as diverse as business monopolies, labor unions, health insurers, initiative petitions and due process. The justices will also revisit the issue of sexual harassment. The following will just be an overview of how the Supreme Court operates. I will try to point out many things throughout the course of this paper.
The first points I will try to show is who the notable past judges were and what major roles they had in our society. Next, I will move into the justices of today and try to give a brief overview of them. Then I will move into the courts specifically. I will try to show how the courts work, how the justices go about choosing cases, hearing arguments, and making decisions. Lastly, I will give an overview of some of the most historic cases that have been heard by the United States Supreme Court and their decisions. As a result, all of these factors considered should help to give a better understanding of the Supreme Court and how it functions.
Since the Supreme Court’s inception in 1789, 108 justices have served on it. There have been 16 chief justices. Several members of the court became great figures in history or were distinguished for contributions beyond their court service. There are four chief justices that have helped shape the course of the American judiciary system and the nation’s overall progress. John Marshall, who served as chief justice from 1801-1835, was probably the most influential chief justice to serve. Often called the great chief justice, Marshall was instrumental in establishing the court’s authority in the national government. During his tenure, the court began issuing single, majority opinions, enabling it to speak with a more definitive, unified voice.
Rulings over this era bolstered federal power over states. Marshall wrote the 1803 decision in Marbury versus Madison, which established judicial review of laws, passed by Congress. Next, was Charles Evans Hughes who served as associate justice 1910-1916 and chief justice 1930-1941. He presided over the court during the Great Depression and the New Deal era. Next, was William Howard Taft, who served as chief justice 1921-1930. He was the only person to serve as President from 1909-1913 and as chief justice. President William G. Harding appointed Taft chief justice.
He successfully pressed Congress to pass laws that gave the court almost unlimited discretion to decide which cases it will hear. Lastly was Earl Warren, who served as chief justice from 1953-1969. This is another man that people would really recognize because of his affiliation to the FBI. Warren, a former California governor, was appointed by Republican President Eisenhower, and took a decidedly liberal course in a socially stormy era. His legacy includes decisions forbidding school segregation, fair mapping of voting districts, and enhancing rights of defendants in criminal trials. Just a couple of small things to add on an aside note are the first African-American chief justice was Thurgood Marshall, who served from 1967-1991, and the first female chief justice was Sandra Day O’Connor, who has served from1981-present.
Next I would just like to rundown the list of current justices that will be hearing cases for this term. Note that I will try to list the current justices in their order of their seniority, who they were appointed by, and what year they were appointed. The top dog, also known as the chief justice, is William H. Rehnquist, who was appointed associate justice by President Richard M. Nixon in 1971 and was later elevated to chief justice by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
The next justice is John Paul Stevens, appointed by President Gerald R. Ford in 1975. Next is Sandra Day O’Connor appointed by President Reagan in1981. Antonin Scalia was appointed by President Reagan also in 1986. The next justice in line would be Anthony M. Kennedy who was appointed by President Reagan in 1988. The next justice up the ladder is David Souter who was appointed justice by President George Bush in 1990. The next justice is probably the most controversial figure on the star panel. Clarence Thomas was appointed justice by President Bush in 1991. The two newest justices have recently been appointed by President Bill Clinton. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed in 1993 and Steven G. Breyer was appointed in 1994. This is the team that will be overseeing the cases that are chosen in the 1998-1999 term.
The next aspect that I would like to show about the United States Supreme Court is none other than how exactly it works. The Supreme Court’s efforts to establish the law of the land began in secrecy and mostly solitude. On Friday during the court’s term, which officially begins on the first Monday in October, the nine justices meet in a small, wood-paneled conference room to decide which cases they think are worth hearing. They meet without law clerks, secretaries, or anyone else. The only people that are in the room other than the justices are the junior justices, but we will get to know them later. As a last resort for people who believe that lower courts have failed the as an arbiter of the Constitution, the Supreme Court will, simply by selecting a case, immediately lift the lives and human situations it contains to national significance.
Its rulings affect not only the two contesting parties, known as petitioner and respondent, but may also change life for all Americans for generations to come. About 7,000 petitions arrive by mail or messenger each term at the “Marble Palace,” as historian John Frank called the court’s building on First Street just east of the Capitol. In the end, the justices’ hand down about 80 signed rulings, each reflecting decades of legal precedent, the current justices’ beliefs and personalities and the enduring decorum that defines this 207-year-old institution, the least public of the three branches of national government. The public normally notices only the final decision in a case, but there is much more that occurs before that, most of it behind the scenes in private debate, votes and negotiations among the justices.
Choosing cases is another issue the justices have to deal with during the course of their terms. The justices determine which cases to take. They never explain the reason for their choices. The important factors are whether the legal question has been decided differently by two lower courts and needs resolution by the high court, whether a lower court decision conflicts with an existing Supreme Court ruling and whether the issue could have significance beyond the two parties in the case. For example, the justices likely accepted the sexual harassment case brought by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, against President Clinton because it will test the important question of whether a president should have to defend himself against a lawsuit while in office.
But the justices do not automatically take on all cases posing significant societal dilemmas. Last June, for example, they refused to hear one on the legality of college affirmative action programs. The case did not garner the four votes needed to accept a petition for review and to schedule oral arguments on it. Before those votes are cast in the closed-door session, however, a case must pass over with several of the youngest, least experienced lawyers in America-the 36 law clerks who serve the nine individual justices and who, in effect, are their staff for a term.
These clerks, most often four to a justice, usually are recent law school graduates and typically the cream of their Ivy League schools. It is the clerks who first consider the 7,000 or so annual petitions, settling on the select few that they believe the justices themselves should consider. There is no set number or quota for each week’s conference. With the clerks’ memo in hand and in the closed conference room, the justices summarily reject most of the appeals. They discuss petitions flagged by one or more of the justices. Then, according to the justices’ public accounts over the years, they vote aloud, one at a time by seniority but starting with the chief justice. The chief justice is also in charge of running the meeting. Among the richest sources of inside information about the court are papers of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall from 1967-1991. They describe negotiations as cases moved through the process. They show, for example, that only the bare minimum of four votes did the justices accept a case that eventually yielded an important 1990 ruling on religious freedom.
Unlike the secret meeting to select cases, the court’s next step is quite public. Oral arguments occur in the Supreme Court’s stately, burgundy draped, gold-trimmed courtroom before a first-come, first-seated public audience. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, starting in October, the justices’ listen to lawyers present each side of two or three cases a day. In the 1980’s when the court accepted more cases, the justices heard arguments in four cases a day. Limited to 30 minutes each, one lawyer from each side makes his or her best arguments. The scene is tense and dramatic as the justices, wearing black robes and sitting in individually sized, black leather chairs, vigorously challenge the lawyers, sometimes consuming large parts of their time allotments.
Even experienced appellate advocates at times become flustered or freeze as they stand at the lectern below the long bench. Still, a lawyer’s appearance before the highest court can be the highlight of a lawyer’s career. When the justices pose different hypothetical situations, they are not necessarily trying to divert the lawyers. They are looking at ways their decision might be applied in the future. The justices may also use the occasion to influence other justices, bolstering one side and side undermining the other. For all their attendant drama, oral arguments are only one part of the decision making process.
There also are written briefs submitted by each side such as the views of the solicitor general, who is the federal government’s top lawyer before the court and other friends of the court. Also, the justices review previous cases on a subject, prepare their own interpretations of the law or constitutional provisions and sometimes, though rarely, turn to outside experts on the issue. For example, one of the most controversial elements of the court’s unanimous decision in Brown versus Board of Education (1954), striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine long used to justify school segregation, was Chief Justice Earl Warren’s reference to sociological and psychological studies. The studies concluded that segregated schools stigmatized children.
When it comes to making decisions, this is a whole process in itself. The justices vote, sometimes more than once because they may switch sides during the process. The first vote on a case is taken in the week of oral arguments. For cases heard on Mondays, the justices’ vote on Wednesday afternoon, again in the secrecy of their conference room. For cases heard on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, they vote Friday. After the vote, the most senior justice is the majority assigns the task of writing the majority opinion. The most senior justice on the losing side will decide who will write the main opinion for the dissenting viewpoint.
The other justices are free to write their own statements if they wish, but the majority opinion speaks for the court. Sometimes, justices say, writing an opinion that all justices in the majority will sign is difficult. Sometimes, justices discover through writing an opinion and trying to justify it with prior court rulings that the case was not what it seemed. On occasion, the chief justice has thrown up his hands as the majority switched from its original position. In many instances, the justices may be perfectly pleased with what the author of the majority opinion is writing but will offer thoughts for variations on the legal analysis or language. The author’s task is to preserve his or her viewpoint, accommodate suggestions if it means keeping the majority and not to turn off others in the group. Based on what outsiders are able to discern from the justices’ public statements and from the opening of once private papers of some justices, the justices do not trade votes during this process. Rather, they engage in a constant conversation by way of memo.
The give and take can last for weeks and months. But fortunately, there is June, when the court traditionally wraps up its work. Beginning in early May, the court stops hearing oral arguments and increases its public release of decisions. Rulings are traditionally handed down on Mondays, although the court nears the end of the term, they are announced on other days, too. Law clerks are heavily involved in this stage, writing draft opinions, researching past cases that will support a ruling, even strategizing. The media are never told in advance how many opinions to expect on a given day.
Reporters will be told whether it is a “regular” day, meaning four or fewer opinions, or a “heavy” day meaning five or more. Returning to that very public forum of the courtroom, the justice who has written the majority opinion briefly announces the court’s ruling from the bench. As the court process ends and the justices begin their long summer vacations, public response begins. No matter how each term’s rulings change American government or individual lives, the nine justices usually remain detached, almost never commenting on their work but returning to their conference room each October to start the process again.
The Supreme Court has issued dozens of landmark rulings during its 207-year history, and many shaped American government and the rights of individuals. While some did nit endure, some as the 1857 “Dred Scott” ruling, all reflect the mood of the court and dilemmas facing the country at historic times in history. The following cases are those that have been most influential to us personally one way or another. The case of Scott versus Sandford in 1857 is one that not to many of us have heard, but it is an issue that we all know about. This ruling declared that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in the territories. Dred Scott, a Missouri slave who had traveled to and worked in free states and territories, asserted that he should be entitled to his freedom under the legal principle “once free, always free.” The next case that we will look at is probably the most recognized Supreme Court decision known to date.
The case entitled Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954 is an example used by teachers nationwide. This ruling struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that the court established in 1886 in Plessy versus Ferguson, which permitted racial segregation of public facilities. The next case of historical significance would be Miranda versus Arizona in 1966. This ruling required police to inform suspects in custody of their right to remain silent, that anything that they say may be used against them and they have right to representation by a lawyer before interrogation. This is another example that teachers use nationwide. The last example of an important Supreme Court ruling that we would all have some idea of came down in 1973 in Roe versus Wade. This ruling made abortion legal nationwide through a constitutional right to privacy.
In closing, I hope that this short interpretation helped us all learn a little more about the United States Supreme Court system. For me personally, it helped considerably in terms of the research and the structure that makes up the Supreme Court. The finding of the present Supreme Court justices also helped in that I can now read the newspaper and have an understanding of the people they are referring to during the course of an article. The Supreme Court is the highest governing body within the state and on the federal level. The United States Supreme Court is the highest governing body known to us as an American people and for the reasons stated earlier, I could see why.