We often see news stories about the decisions being made by the Supreme Court of the United States and hear radio and television pundits argue over whether they feel the justices made the right call. But what is the Supreme Court, and how do the decisions they make affect us? As one of the three branches of our Federal government, the Court’s say can have a big impact on us as citizens. To understand just why this is, we need to look at what the Supreme Court is.
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the land, and therefore has the final say in all federal legal matters. It is trusted to interpret the U.S. Constitution. This practice is referred to as “judicial review”. Through the power of judicial review, the Supreme Court can immediately invalidate, or eliminate, any law that it determines violates the Constitution. Once the Supreme Court has made a decision only another Supreme Court decision or an amendment to the Constitution itself can change their interpretation.
The Supreme Court was established by Article III of the U.S. Constitution and first met in 1790 and was partly responsible for determining its own powers. In these early years the Supreme Court was seen as rather ineffective. It would rarely take on controversial cases or issue strong opinions. This all changed with the appointment of its fourth Chief Justice, the brash John Marshall. Marshall went to work clearly defining the role of the Supreme Court and clarified its duties, and developed the crucial power of judicial review with the 1803 decision in Marbury v. Madison.
Judicial review is the primary source from which the Supreme Court draws its huge influence over our daily lives. For example, it was through judicial review that the Supreme Court ended racial segregation in our schools in the landmark ruling of Brown v. The Topeka Board of Education. This earth shaking decision marked the beginning of the end of the so called “Jim Crow” laws that had unfairly held some Americans back and forced them into a role of second class citizens. Aside from judicial review, the Supreme Court is given control over federal courts and even writes procedures which these lower courts must adhere to. The Court does not however have the right to make decisions on matters concerning state constitutions, unless those constitutions are in conflict with the U.S. Constitution, and only has authority over state courts in so far as those courts must adhere to the Supreme Court’s rulings on matters concerning the Constitution of the United States.
Today, the Court is made up of nine judges, known as Justices, who hold their positions for life. These Justices are each appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. The leader of this group is known as the Chief Justice. The Chief Justice has the power to set the Court’s agenda, essentially deciding what cases will be heard during their session, although a case will be heard if any four Justices agree to take it up. These sessions begin by law on October 1, and typically last through late June or early July of the next year.
So the next time you read about a case that is being heard by the Supreme Court of the United States you should remember that their decision essentially sets the official interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and has a major impact on the direction of the laws and policies that affect your life.