The Supreme Court - Really a Big Deal?
I've been of the opinion for a very long time now that the Supreme Court of the United States is the most powerful political institution in this country. The Constitution of our country establishes, in theory, three equal branches of government which provide checks and balances for each other thereby ensuring that no one branch gains excessive power. It is actually a remarkable structure that has endured for over 200 years and has served the nation incredibly well. The Supreme Court, the highest court in the judicial branch of the government, is a unique body. The Constitution is not specific about the make up of the court, and in fact the number of justices on the court has changed a number of times, but currently sits at nine. But what is clear in the Constitution is that the justices are appointed by the president, with the "advice and consent" of the Senate, to lifetime terms assuming "good behavior" on the part of the justices. Thus a justice serves on the court until he or she dies or chooses to retire (resign). These are not elected positions, there is no term limitation. The current court has served for more than a decade without any changes (the last justice appointed to the court was Stephen G. Breyer who was appointed in August of 1994).
What makes the court so powerful is the principle of judicial review established by the Supreme Court itself in the landmark ruling of Marbury vs. Madison handed down in 1803. In this ruling, the Chief Justice of the court, John Marshall, held that the Constitution was the supreme law of the land, and that it was the responsibility of the Supreme Court to make rulings held to this principle. Thus, Marshall argued, if an act of the government (a law, an executive order, etc.) somehow violated the Constitution, it was the role and responsibility of the court to declare that act unconstitutional and therefore, null and void. This then was a significant check that the judicial branch of the government had over the legislative and executive branches - it could, based on the justices interpretation of the Constitution, declare actions of both branches null and void. As the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court was the final arbitrator in these matters as decisions from the Supreme Court cannot be appealed.
Throughout the history of the United States, the Supreme Court has broadened the concept of judicial review in a manner that has made the court a very powerful body. In essence the court has gone from interpreting whether specific laws are constitutional to interpreting whether the principles embodied in those laws are constitutional. That is to say, the Supreme Court ultimately determines what rights are enumerated in and protected by the Constitution of the United States. The rulings of the Supreme Court can only be overturned by the Supreme Court itself (which will only happen if there is an ideological shift in the Court) or by amending the Constitution.
During her term on the bench, Sandra Day O'Connor has sat in the center of the court, ideologically speaking. She has been the key vote in numerous 5-4 decisions in a number of high profile cases central to protecting certain rights. In cases involving a womans right to choose, she has upheld the Court's ruling in Roe vs. Wade. She has also been a key vote in helping to keep the line between church and state clear and defined. In this role, O'Connor has significantly shaped the ideology of the current court, and her replacement will have a major impact on the future leaning of the court. With so many cases being decided 5-4, a single vote can move the court in the complete opposite direction.
Pay close attention to what is happening in Washington over the next few weeks, and by all means weigh in! Use your voice and contact your Senators and let them know which direction you believe the Court should be heading. The choice of a new Justice to the Supreme Court may be the most important decision made by the government for decades to come.