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US Supreme Court Essay, Research Paper

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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