The power that lies within The U.S. Supreme Court is often overlooked, though the decisions it upholds fundamentally change American life as we know it. With Amy Coney Barrett’s recent nomination to the Supreme Court, we are now facing a 6-3 ratio of conservative to liberal judges. While the Supreme Court was fundamentally created to be an apolitical body — and this is something I’ll get to later — there is no question that all decisions that fall under the court are politically charged by nature.
Americans’ rights often fall straight into the hands of the Supreme Court and their collective interpretation of the Constitution. Roe v. Wade guaranteed Americans the right to a safe and legal abortion as a part of their constitutional right to privacy. Just five years ago Obergefell v. Hodges held that a state is required to license marriage to same-sex couples. These are just two of numerous landmark cases that define American life today. And unfortunately, these are two cases that are at risk of being overturned. If you are marginalized in any way and can think of a right that you enjoy, chances are that the Supreme Court granted that right. We need to take new confirmations to the Supreme Court just as seriously as — if not more seriously than — we do Presidential elections.
A Brief History of the Supreme Court
For some of us it’s been a while, so let’s take a trip back into U.S. government class. The Supreme Court of the United States (or SCOTUS, as I will affectionately call it from time to time) was established in 1789 by Article 3 of the U.S. Constitution. This essentially stipulated that a judicial branch should be created, and that judges maintain their positions during good behavior (which often means for life.)
The Supreme Court was quite unremarkable for a minute there. Sure, they had a couple of cases regarding some farmers who were owed some money, but honestly nothing too exciting happened. That is until Marbury v. Madison, an absolutely wild decision, came up in 1803.
Marbury v. Madison was a landmark decision. in which John Adams placed some sneaky appointments into the federal government right before his presidency ended. William Marbury, one of Adams’ appointees, didn’t receive commission under the new president, Thomas Jefferson. Marbury petitioned the court to summon James Madison, who was Jefferson’s Secretary of State. I know the details here are just riveting, but hold out for just a second.
Chief Justice John Marshall saw an opportunity here. The Judiciary Act of 1789, which is the act that made it legal to mandate Madison to court, granted the Supreme Court original jurisdiction to do so. This alone, under Marshall’s opinion, was unconstitutional. And thus, Marbury v. Madison birthed judicial review: the ability for the Supreme Court to determine whether a law is constitutional.
That’s why the Supreme Court is as important as it is today. SCOTUS has the power to interpret various laws’ constitutionality. By assessing individual laws right against the law of the land, justices are able to determine whether or not legislation violates any of the rights that the Constitution grants.
With all of that historical fluff out of the way, let’s take a look at how the Supreme Court has impacted our daily lives.
Why is The Supreme Court such a big deal?
While we can totally get into why the Constitution is a bit antiquated, especially as it was written by slaveholders and terrible white men, we unfortunately can’t just burn it and create a new one. It would be an effort to abolish the entire Constitution. I do have to say that given all of its flaws, The Supreme Court has quite often been on our side.
Have you benefited from the Affordable Care Act? Check out National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the act is completely constitutional and essentially a tax.
Hell, want to burn an American flag? Texas v. Johnson. First Amendment right. You totally can. And frankly, I’m not sure why it took until the 80’s to determine whether or not this was free speech.
Interracial marriage is completely constitutional. And it has only been ruled so for 53 years. Through Loving v. Virginia, the court unanimously ruled that de jure discrimination (meaning on paper and by law) was completely unconstitutional due to the 14th Amendment, Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
Obviously, these are just a few cases out of zillions that the court has decided. What’s quite terrifying is that a conservative court might overturn some of the landmark decisions that have formed American life. Roe v. Wade is at significant risk. Trump stated that it would be “possible” to overturn it with Amy Coney Barrett on the bench. The Affordable Care Act could easily be overturned, as it was a weak decision to begin with.
And not only does the Supreme Court have the power to overturn cases that once granted us civil rights, but it is totally possible that a conservative SCOTUS might not ever revisit older cases such as Shelby County v. Holder, which essentially ruled that voter suppression is a-okay.
I know this is a bit doom and gloom here, but the Supreme Court is so often overlooked during election season and really, that’s a bit crushing.
Eek, so what can I do?
Well, at this moment in time Amy Coney Barrett has already been confirmed, but we’re still not certain if any other Justices will exit the bench soon. You’ve got to hold your senators accountable. Give them a call. Write them a letter. Have a discussion about the importance of civil rights. Vote in your best interest. Seriously, I bet midterms will be here before we even know it. The best way to create laws that are in our best interest is to hold the legislators who work for us accountable. The Supreme Court might be up in arms, but it’s not too late to foster fair and equitable legislation in your local area.
Thumbnail by Maria Oswalt via Unsplash.