Understanding the Supreme Court

Last week, the United States Supreme Court began their nine-month term for the 2019-2020 session. Within the United States Constitution, the wise Founding Fathers created three co-equal branches of government, establishing a system of checks and balances. The powers of one branch may be challenged by another.

These checks and balances, shared between the three branches, have strengthened our democracy for more than two hundred years.

Article I of the Constitution establishes the legislative powers of Congress among which are the powers to decide the organization of the Supreme Court and to establish lesser federal courts. In its first legislative act in 1789, Congress divided the country into thirteen judicial districts organized into three circuits. In the beginning, the Supreme Court had a Chief Justice and five Associate Justices, all of whom had to travel the circuits under brutal weather and road conditions. While the Senate has the right to try all impeachments of the President, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shall preside.

Article II creates the executive branch and outlines its powers. This includes the ability to nominate judges for the Supreme Court, by and with the “Advice and Consent of the Senate” (the legislative branch).

Article III of the Constitution recognizes the Supreme Court as the highest federal court in America for all legal cases and controversies arising under the Constitution, laws or treaties. It interprets, as well as guards, the Constitution and arbitrates the constitutionality of any legislation passed by Congress and signed by the President.

The Constitution prohibits judges’ salaries from being diminished and allows judges to serve as long as they serve during “good behavior” (or life time terms) in order to promote an independent judiciary, free of partisan pressures from the legislative or executive branches. In 1791, the original Supreme Court handed down their first opinion, after spending time organizing. George Washington, as our first President, appointed the entire Supreme Court after the passage by Congress of the Judiciary Act of 1789. Washington appointed ten justices and thirty-eight federal judges during his term as president.

The first decade of the Supreme Court established important precedents and decisions. Under the fourth Chief Justice John Marshall, the Supreme Court rose to its prominent place in the government. In the 1803 Marbury v. Madison case, the Supreme Court’s power to decide on the constitutionality of federal laws enacted by Congress was determined.

Other notable Chief Justices are Charles Evans in the 1930’s, who presided over the transition of protecting civil liberties over property rights, and Earl Warren who presided over desegregation of schools, activating Miranda rights (“the right to remain silent”), and abolishing bans against interracial marriage. The Supreme Court, as a powerful and co- equal branch of government, has shaped our country and our lives. In its best decisions, the Supreme Court has moved our country forward with changing times as our Founding Fathers must have hoped it would.

Until 1869, the number of justices on the Supreme Court changed six times. Since then, the number of justices has remained at nine. The current justices are Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Jr., Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

The Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC is open to the public Monday – Friday from 9 AM until 4:30 PM, except on holidays. The business of the courts may restrict some areas during certain days; however, it is a fascinating tour. If you visit, look up over the main entrance of the building and read the Supreme Court’s mission statement inscribed in stone:

EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER THE LAW.

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