Explaining Supreme Court Decisions

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As the nation’s highest court, the Supreme Court makes decisions that affects the lives of everyday people and has major legal implications. The court addresses issues from abortion to free speech. It has the power to strike down laws passed by Congress or actions by the president it interprets to be unconstitutional.

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In theory, the Supreme Court and its members are independent from the rest of the federal government and above politics since they are appointed to the court rather than elected. Several factors influence the decisions that members of the Supreme Court, these factors are precedent, public opinion, interest groups, and the Justices’ personal political ideologies. I believe that in terms of Madisonian democracy, the Supreme Court is an important and effective institution, despite the paradox it sometimes has in our democracy.

When making decisions, the Supreme Court often takes the legal idea of stare decisis into consideration. Stare decisis refers to the Latin phrase ”let it stand”. This refers to precedent. Precedent in a legal system is meant to help guide judges in future decisions they make should the issue or a case related to that issue come up before the court, or lower courts again. When a decision is handed down, Justices can refer to stare decisis as a reason for their decision. When Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) came before the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor in her majority decision reaffirmed the constitutional right to an abortion set in Roe v. Wade (1973). Roe set the precedent that the right to an abortion was guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Despite the Court’s ruling reaffirming the right to an abortion, this precedent has been put aside before.

The Supreme Court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 2003 in the case of Gonzales v. Carhart (2007). In that case, then Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion that that banning partial-birth abortion was not an ”undue burden” on women who were seeking an abortion, and that Congress indeed had the power to ban partial-birth abortions. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg claimed that the Court was ignoring precedent by placing a restriction on abortion, and not allowing a woman to make a decision for herself. In other cases, precedent in the Supreme Court has been outright ignored. The Supreme Court overturned previously established precedent made in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) in its decision of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which regarded the idea of ”separate but equal” expressed in Plessy as unconstitutional. Precedent was once again ignored in the case of Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which overturned the case of Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), which had upheld the constitutionality of anti-sodomy laws in the United States. The Supreme Court has taken the idea of precedent into its legal decisions, and at times, chosen to accept it or ignore it, as seen in these cases mentioned above.

When the Supreme Court makes decisions, public opinion is taken into consideration. One may wonder why the Court would bother to do this, as the members of the Court are appointed for life, and the Justices do not have to answer to the American people why they rule in a particular way, unlike decisions made by Congress or the President of the United States. The Court takes public opinion into consideration because the decision would likely reflect the values of the American people. The Warren court is a prime example of this, as it made liberal decisions at a time when the American people were rather liberal in regards to matters such as race, as seen in Loving v. Virginia (1967), or free speech in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). These examples require looking at the context of the time period these decisions were made in. Loving struck down bans on interracial marriage at a time when the Civil Rights movement was well underway by then. Tinker was handed down at a time when protesting the Vietnam War was almost universal among the American people, who had grown frustrated with the deteriorating situation in Southeast Asia.

Further examples could even include the infamous decision of Korematsu v. United States (1944), as a reflection of the mindset of the American public and anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II. Bringing us to the 21st century, the Supreme Court has made decisions that reflected public opinion, in overturning anti-sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), or striking down the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 in United States v. Windsor (2013) and guaranteeing same sex couples the right to marry in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), decisions that would have been seen as impossible to hand down in previous eras of American history and times when support for same sex marriage was not as high as they have been since the 2000s. These are examples of how public opinion can sway decisions made by the Supreme Court.
Interest groups are known to try to persuade the Court in its decision-making. Whenever a case that concerns their particular interest comes before the Court, interest groups will already be there the moment the Court announces they will take up that case. One of the first steps interest groups take is filing an amicus curiae briefs, In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), a case which considered whether or gun restrictions by the District of Columbia violate the Second Amendment, the National Rifle Association filed an amicus brief, as did the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, interest groups with different priorities when it comes to guns. When a controversial issue such as abortion or voting rights come before the Court, interest groups like NARAL or National Right to Life, and the NAACP or ACLU all file amicus briefs. Apart from this, they attempt to mobilize their members in an effort to gather in demonstrations and put pressure on the court to rule in their favor.

In recent years, interest groups have become more involved in the nomination process for federal judges. Interest groups have worked either to support or deny the confirmation of a judge nominated to the Supreme Court. This is seen in the case of the NAACP, ACLU both vigorously opposing the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. In other cases, interest groups have played some sort of role in the selection of a particular judge. These interest groups want a judge whose ideology is closer to theirs. This is evident in the nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court under the Trump administration. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh were pre selected from a list created by the Federalist Society, a Conservative legal group. This was the result of carefully collaborated attempts by the Republican party to pack the judicial system with Conservative leaning judges, an ongoing effort going back to the Nixon administration. All of this is how interest groups have tried to influence the decisions made by the Supreme Court.

The final factor behind the decision making of the Supreme Court is none other than the Justices themselves. Their ideologies are one of the most common reasons behind the reasoning of a Justice’s decision in a case before the Court. Their ideology is one of the reasons why they are chosen when nominated to the Supreme Court by whoever the president is. For instance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated liberals William O. Douglas and Hugo Black in order to support the New Deal, and Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, the late George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush nominated conservatives such as the late William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito, all of whom have been known for their judicial philosophy known as Originalism. Since Richard Nixon nominated Warren Burger to the position of Chief Justice in 1969, and up through the Rehnquist and Roberts courts, the Supreme Court has leaned strongly Conservative, this position considered to have been solidified with the nomination and confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh in October of 2018.

The Justices themselves are believed to try to stay on the Supreme Court as long as they can until a president of their particular political party can nominate a like minded successor. For instance, John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun, two of the most liberal justices to serve on the Court, chose to wait to retire under the Obama administration, despite already being 90 years old at the time. and Chief Justice Warren Burger retired in 1986 while President Reagan was in office and Republicans controlled the Senate, allowing a like minded successor to be confirmed on the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall, a liberal justice, was less than successful in securing a similar ideological successful as he had to retire due to poor health under the George H.W. Bush administration, being replaced by Clarence Thomas, known as one of the most conservative, and quiet justices on the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court plays a check and balance on both the executive and legislative branches, but is it democratic? The Supreme Court is considered to be the least democratic of the three branches. The fact that Justices are appointed, rather than elected is a clear factor that it can sound undemocratic, though this claim with refuted that the president who nominates this justice and the Senate which provides its advice and consent are both chosen by the American people. In our Madisonian democracy, much like the electoral college, the Supreme Court is meant to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Even Justice John Marshall II advocated that the judiciary should not make policy from the bench, and leave that up to the President and Congress. The Supreme Court gave itself the power of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison (1803) in order to give itself independence from both the President and Congress, a move that would be considered undemocratic. An example of judicial review was in the case of United States v. Nixon (1974), where the Supreme Court, including Justices who were nominated by President Nixon himself ruled against him in his claims that executive privilege allowed him to be above the law and turn over evidence in a criminal investigation. This landmark decision limited the President’s powers, and the Court found that the Supreme Court had the final say in questions regarding to the Constitution, reaffirming its unique and important role in our democracy. The Founding Fathers themselves were clearly not worried about a powerful judiciary, noting that it can make decisions and strike down laws and acts by the president or Congress, but it cannot enforce those decisions, as seen with ending racial segregation in the South after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was decided.

An independent judiciary has been a hallmark of American democracy. The Court makes decisions that affects Americans of all walks of life. But in order for these decisions to happen, there are several ways which try to influence how these decisions are made. They are public opinion, interest groups, precedent, and the personal political ideologies of the Justices. Despite how undemocratic it might sound at times, the Court plays a crucial role in our Madisonian democracy, and must continue to do so in order to remain an effective body of the federal government.

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