By Michael Beecher
Aug 13, 2014
What is the supreme court?
To some this may sound like a silly question but if you’re anything like me you didn’t fully understand the United States government until later in life and if then only by choice. Maybe it’s different in other countries or in the school that you went to, but I don’t remember learning much about my government and how important it was to my life and the future of the country I called home. I had one class on government topics in middle school, along with 6 other subjects, just being a kid, hanging out with friends and puberty to deal with; needless to say, I didn’t remember much of what I had crammed for exams in that class years later as I became an adult.
So, I had to educate myself later in life. This article is for people like me that need a quick refresher course on topics related to government.
General info: Wikipedia
The Supreme Court of the United States (first abbreviated as SCOTUS in 1879) was established pursuant to Article III of the United States Constitution in 1789 as the highest federal court in the United States. It has ultimate (and largely discretionary) appellate jurisdiction over all federal courts and over state court cases involving issues of federal law, plus original jurisdiction over a small range of cases. In the legal system of the United States, the Supreme Court is the final interpreter of federal constitutional law, although it may only act within the context of a case in which it has jurisdiction.
The Court consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Once appointed, justices have life tenure unless they resign, retire, take senior status, or are removed after impeachment (though no justice has ever been removed in history). In modern discourse, the justices are often categorized as having conservative, moderate, or liberal philosophies of law and of judicial interpretation. Each justice has one vote, and while many cases are decided unanimously, many of the highest profile cases often expose ideological beliefs that track with those philosophical or political categories.
In other words, the SCOTUS is the supreme law of the land within the United States. It was the Supreme Court that ultimately made landmark decisions such as Lochner v. New York, Roe v. Wade, and Brown v. Board of Education.
What about the more recent case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission which changed the long standing view that the first amendment did not apply to corporations ultimately giving giant multinational, privately owned companies the same legal rights as people. This case began as an issue of people being against extremely wealthy and influential corporations financing advertisements and campaign efforts for specific candidates in elections. Why, for many reasons but possibly one of the biggest is that it makes it even more difficult for nominees in elections to compete with corporate backed opponents giving third parties such as the Green Party hardly no chance at all without the massive funding it takes to make your voice heard across the media in the United States. The end result many claim is that you have a government bought and paid for, not a government of the people that represents the average middle class family.
This has led to other controversial cases such as Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby where corporations can now claim exemptions from certain laws because of religious beliefs. So essentially what recent cases decided by our current Supreme Court Justices do is make it so that the large corporations taking over commerce and the economy in the United States by sheer size and influence are now given similar rights and freedoms as the individual. It’s not such a bad thing if your beliefs about life match up with multimillionaires and billionaires, but it’s a scary thing for the average everyday working person without that kind of money or influence if their beliefs happen to disagree. Most people that oppose these recent decisions are also opposed to huge wealth and income inequalities or believe that concentrated wealth combined with political influence changes the very essence of democracy and the country becomes more of an Oligarchy.
Their is also on-going debate as to the power federal law should have over state law, with some believing government should be more localized to better handle decisions for that specific state and others believing that state governments becoming “too un-united” goes against the concept of a “United States”. This goes back to pre-civil war and civil rights eras where certain states wanted to maintain laws allowing slavery, racism and segregation.
The overall picture that I hope has been painted in this short article is that the Supreme Court of the United States has a lot of authority, and the decisions that these 9 individuals make impact all of us in so many ways. It’s kind of scary, at least when you think about it from this perspective. To corrupt the government hundreds of people have to become corrupt, but to corrupt the Supreme Court only 5 people have to become corrupt. To corrupt a democratic country, the majority of citizens have to either not be paying attention, not get involved or become corrupt, but to corrupt a dictatorship, only one person has to become corrupt. If nothing else, the amount of power the Supreme Court has is far from democratic when applied to an entire country of 300+ million citizens with decisions left to only nine individuals. I am sure the intention is noble and I could study the history some more to find out, but the mere fact that combined with corruption or simply five out of nine individuals with shared and biased views, extremely important laws and the legal precedent for future laws are decided and enforced.
Abraham Lincoln warned over a hundred years ago, referring to the Dred Scott decision…
“If government policy becomes irrevocably fixed by the decisions of the Supreme Court… the people will have ceased to be their own rulers.”
What are your thoughts? What do you think about the function of the Supreme Court? What about the current Justices and the decisions they are making in favor of corporations? These are some of the questions I believe we should be asking ourselves. Why does it matter, what can we do? Well there’s not much with the way everything is set up now, but in the future the function or structure of the Supreme Court as well as everything related to government could be changed if it is what the majority of the people wanted and the elected officials wanted. After all, the United States is preaching Democracy all around the world and in many cases by use of military action. The Constitution is of course a centerpiece in America, but just as various religious sub-cultures disagree on the interpretations of ancient texts they deem holy and without flaw, a similar issue can occur when interpreting the constitution. For now, we can continue to educate ourselves, pay close attention to decisions that are made, run for political office, join a movement that closely matches our personal beliefs and ultimately get more involved in various forms of citizen activism.