Top 10 Reasons to Care About the Supreme Court

Columbia Free Times | August 19, 2005
It’s no secret that the Supreme Court has, well, **supreme** power over the interpretation of laws in the United States. That alone is enough to get **some** people to pay attention to what the Court is up to. If you’re the not the kind of person who typically gets worked up over arcane matters of constitutional law, however, then you might need a rundown of why the Court matters. Here, in no particular order, are 10 reasons to pay attention to the Supreme Court.


When talk of the Supreme Court comes up, abortion concerns are never far behind. No matter where you stand on this volatile issue, the Supreme Court is looking over your shoulder, issuing rulings that affect both your ability to obtain an abortion and your ability to protest against those who do. Ever since the 1980s, pro-choice activists have lived in fear of a day when a conservative president gains the power to overturn Roe v. Wade. Whether President Bush’s nomination of U.S. Circuit Judge John Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court means that day is now here is still unclear. Meanwhile, the end of the Roe era couldn’t come soon enough for pro-life activists.

Medical Marijuana

Never mind patients’ pain or states’ rights: The Supreme Court ruled in June that the federal government can arrest patients who are using marijuana **legally** under state laws. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the power to prohibit the cultivation and use of marijuana, even when a state has authorized it for medical uses. The case involved two California patients, one of whom with a brain tumor and the other suffering from spinal disease. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, "If Congress can regulate [medical marijuana] under the commerce clause, then it can regulate virtually anything — and the federal government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers."


The Supreme Court’s controversial Bush v. Gore decision in December 2000 will forever be the subject of partisan rancor. But beyond the question of whether the Court acted **fairly** from a political perspective is the question of whether it acted **reasonably** from a legal perspective. Most legal scholars say it didn’t: To arrive at the pro-Bush ruling, the Court distorted the concept of the Constitution’s equal protection clause in an unprecedented manner. “Never before had a decision of the Supreme Court been subjected by large numbers of law professors to such swift, intense and uncompromising denunciation in the popular press as greeted the Dec. 12, 2000, ruling,” write Peter Berkowitz and Benjamin Wittes in “The Professors and Bush v. Gore” (** The Wilson Quarterly**, 2001).


“The real problem is not the Supreme Court's politics but the depressing quality of its work,” writes Benjamin Wittes in “Without Precedent,” from the September issue of **The Atlantic**. Though the Court hears fewer cases than it did two decades ago, Wittes writes that the Court writes sloppy opinions that pay little heed to the facts of an individual case and that it “blithely ignores its own principles and precedents when they're inconvenient.” He also writes that this is nothing new, but that the problem has become more obvious as the power of the Court has increased.


The U.S. military’s own guidelines on torture indicate that it is a highly ineffective means by which to extract information (see “Truth Extraction,” **Atlantic Monthly**, June 2005). Nonetheless, the United States currently has an uncomfortably close relationship with torture: White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez (now attorney general) wrote a memo in 2002 in which he stated that some prohibitions against torture had been rendered “quaint” by current events and, besides, they didn’t apply to President Bush’s detention and questioning of “enemy combatants.” And through a process called “extraordinary rendition,” the U.S. government outsources the torture of terror suspects to places like Egypt and Jordan. What does the Supreme Court have to do with this? Everything: The Court is the only institution in the country with the power to enforce the rule of law and the concept of due process on the executive branch. The Court has already waded into the legally murky waters of the war on terror, backing the Bush administration on its detentions of terror suspects, but also ruling that suspects have a right to appeal their detentions in the U.S. court system.

Church and State

Gay marriage, evolution, school vouchers, Ten Commandments displays, stem cell research: You name it, there’s a controversy pitting evangelical versus secular values surrounding it. And in many cases, the Supreme Court eventually wades in. The current impetus behind the school-voucher movement, for example, can be directly traced to a decision by the Court in June 2002 that found a voucher program in Cleveland did not violate the separation of church and state.

Civil Liberties

Most Americans agreed after Sept. 11 that additional security measures were in order, even at the expense of some liberty. The USA PATRIOT Act, however, strikes many observers — and not just civil libertarians — as going too far. Critics say the law gives federal officials the power to search personal records without establishing probable cause and with little judicial oversight. They also complain that the law has already been extended beyond its stated purpose of combating terrorism, having been applied in cases involving money laundering, computer fraud and child pornography. Courts have tinkered around the margins of the Act — a section allowing the government to obtain Internet records without judicial oversight was struck down, for example — but for the most part it remains intact. Challenges to the Act could eventually reach the Supreme Court.

Death Penalty

The death penalty is legal in 38 states, and it is very unlikely that the Supreme Court would strike it down in its entirety (though the practice was discontinued between 1967 and 1976). Nonetheless, many cases challenge aspects of it. The Court ruled in 2005, for example, that executing those who were under age 18 at the time of their crimes is unconstitutional.

Old Age

The average age of a justice on the Supreme Court is 71.1. If Judge John Roberts, 50, is confirmed, that average will drop to 68.3. That’s still older than the age at which most people retire. The concern about the justices’ age is not just academic, nor is it rooted in ageism. In the article “Mental Decrepitude on the U.S. Supreme Court” (published in 2000 in the **University of Chicago Law Review**), historian David Garrow documents many instances in which the mental frailties of Supreme Court justices had a real impact on the Court’s work. Garrow acknowledges that old age and mental frailty do not always go together, but says a constitutional amendment requiring justices to retire by age 75 would be an important step forward.

Reality Check

The biggest problem with the U.S. Supreme Court, writes Stuart Taylor Jr. in **The Atlantic**, is not that it’s too conservative or too liberal, but that it’s out of touch with reality. From reviewing lower courts’ sentencing guidelines to interpreting arcane areas of commercial law, Taylor says the current Court lacks the real-world experience to get the job done. “Quietly our Supreme Court has become a sort of aristocracy — unable or unwilling to clearly see the workings, glitches and peculiarities of the justice system over which it presides from such great altitude.”

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