Essay, Research Paper: US Supreme Court


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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.
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