What is the US Supreme Court?

2nd October 2020

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) was established in article three of the United States Constitution to create a federal judiciary and is seen as being the third branch of the US government, acting as part of a checks and balances system against the other two branches; the legislative branch (comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate) and the executive branch (comprising the Presidency). Whilst all Justices, who hold a lifetime role, are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate, article three also allows Congress power over how the court is organised with the number of Justices appointed to the court being as low as five and as high as 11. Currently, the Supreme Court contains nine judges consisting of a Chief Justice and eight associate justices with the ideological split being five to four conservatives to liberals. However, it should be noted that justices do not always vote along ideological lines.

The court themselves have described their role as being ‘the final arbiter of the law… ensuring the American people the promise of equal justice under law and, thereby, also functions as guardian and interpreter of the Constitution’.1 As the highest court in the land SCOTUS holds tremendous power and holds the power of judicial review as part of its role in the checks and balances system of the US government. As part of this role, the court is charged with protecting civil rights and liberties through the reviewing and rejecting of laws which violate the Constitution. In this checks and balances role, the court is also described as setting ‘appropriate limits on democratic government by ensuring that popular majorities cannot pass laws that harm and/or take undue advantage of unpopular minorities’.2  Throughout its history SCOTUS has made many landmark decisions which have created wide felt effects across the country. Some of these rulings have included the ending of segregated schooling in Brown v Board of Education (1954), the establishment of the Miranda rights informing suspects of ‘their right to remain silent, their right to an attorney, and that anything they say can and will be used against them in a court of law’ in Miranda v Arizona (1966), and Roe v Wade (1973) which used the 14th Amendments Right to Privacy in order to rule that a State was not allowed to regulate a woman’s decision over an abortion. More recently, in Obergefell v Hodges (2015) the Supreme Court ruled five votes to four that the 14th Amendment guaranteed the right to marry and, therefore, that same-sex marriage should be legally recognised in every State.

With the appointment to the Supreme Court being a lifetime role, those selected to serve on the court have the power to change the lives of American’s for generations. With the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a President Trump nominated Justice to take her place would make the Supreme Court one of the most conservative-leaning in history. With President Trump having already appointed two Supreme Court Justices during his tenure it is feared that his influence could be felt for the next 30 years. In order to combat this, Democrats have recently tabled a bill entitled the Supreme Court Term Limits and Regular Appointments Act that would allow a President to nominate two-justices per four-year term whilst also limiting the tenure of a Supreme Court Justice to 18 years.

With long-term trends pointing towards increased diversification and urbanisation of the United States, which would favour the Democrats, Republicans have placed a premium on conservative appointments to the Supreme Court in order to ensure their representation in government for generations to come. With this in mind, it has become apparent that the highest court in the land has turned into yet another political battleground, diluting the court’s legitimacy in the process. For this reason, it has also become apparent that in such politically divisive times the court is in need of reformation or reorganisation in order to maintain its position as ‘guardian and interpreter of the Constitution’.