What role does the Supreme Court play in the American Political System?
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What role does the Supreme Court play in the American Political System? Perhaps it is no surprise that the country which contains more than half of the lawyers in the world also contains the most powerful court in the world : the Supreme Court. As the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court plays a major role in American political life, acting as the final court of appeal and the final arbiter of the ambiguities of the Constitution, giving it the power to overturn any law passed by any legislature in the country if it is deemed to be "unconstitutional". It would be wrong, however, to see the Court as simply ruling laws as "unconstitutional" or not, for its judgements on cases it has heard have had far-reaching effects on many Americans. The Supreme Court was brought into being by Article 3, Section 1 of the Constitution, "The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish". The Supreme Court was originally set up as part of the separation of powers in the American political system, with its independent executive, judiciary and legislature. It was not originally implicitly granted the power of judicial review by the founding fathers, but it could be argued that this power was implied. The Supreme Court actually gained the power of judicial review in 1803 in the case of Marbury v Madison, in which the Supreme Court of the time, led by Chief Justice John Marshall (who is credited in being the major figure in obtaining this power for the Court), declared Section 13 of the 1789 Judiciary Act unconstitutional, an act which Congress did not attempt to overrule.
It is in the interests of the Court to ascertain the public mood when deliberating on a major judgement, for having the weight of public opinion against it is an undesirable state of affairs for any area of government to have but, more importantly, the Court has to make sure that it does not antagonise another branch of government too much. Happily, there has not been a major challenge to the Court's authority in recent years, despite it having ruled against a President in this period (U.S. v Nixon (1974)). The Supreme Court, though its moral authority is widely recognised now, has not been without challenges to its judgements, and one of the best examples of this is the Dred Scott v Sandford (1857) case. This case is one of the most famous cases in the history of the Supreme Court, as it was one of the main reasons for the Civil War. In this case the main issue was whether or not the southern states had the right to classify blacks in law as property and deny them citizenship. The actual case brought to the Supreme Court by Dred Scott, a slave, was whether a black slave could become a citizen of the United States by living in a part of the country where slavery had been forbidden by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Supreme Court ruled that he could not and "that the compromise (which prohibited slavery north of 36 degrees and 30 minutes) was an unconstitutional deprivation of property and a denial of due process of law" (Bowles,1993:268). Following the civil war, of which this case was a major factor in causing it, this Supreme Court ruling was overturned by two Constitutional amendments, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth, whereby slavery was abolished and blacks were allowed to become U.S.
Because of their life tenures Judges are allowed to follow a more independent line than a member of a party could. The only way they can be removed from the Court is by impeachment, as set out in Article 3 Section 1, "The Judges...shall hold their offices during good behaviour". They are paid a salary for their job, with a large pension so that they can retire from the Court and still live extremely comfortably. It also sets out on Article 3, Section 1, that their salary "shall not be diminished during their continuance in office", taking away from Congress the power to withhold their salaries if the Court passes a judgement which is not acceptable to Congress. The Supreme Court fulfils many roles in American politics; legislator, arbiter, maker of public policy and interpreter of the Constitution. It is the most powerful court in the world, unelected in a system characterised by elections, with the power to subject every law passed in the nation to scrutiny. It is not unchecked, however, for public, congressional and public opinion holds it in check, for moral authority can only be sustained as long as there is no wholesale deviation from the norm. To conclude, the Supreme Court plays a pivotal role in the American political system, acting both as a part of the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances. Its day-to-day rulings may not arise much as much interest among the American people, but whenever a major, contentious issue needs to be resolved, the Supreme Court will usually play a role in determining it, for as Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes commented (in McKay,1993:249) "We are very quiet there but it is the quiet of a storm centre.
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