The U.S. Supreme Court in History and Today

By Salvato, Nancy | The World and I, November 2005 | Go to article overview

The U.S. Supreme Court in History and Today


Salvato, Nancy, The World and I


The U.S. Supreme Court, with its nine black-draped justices, is at the pinnacle of America's third branch of government. It wields immense power, but has sometimes stumbled badly in exercising its influence.

According to Article III, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, "Judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution ..." The Supreme Court can hear some cases directly (original jurisdiction) and some only when they're appealed (appellate jurisdiction). The meaning of jurisdiction is to interpret the law; therefore, it is up to the Supreme Court to interpret federal law.

Some have interpreted jurisdiction to mean that the Supreme Court has the power of judicial review, which allows it to declare acts of the president or Congress unconstitutional. This notion has been around since the time the U.S. Constitution was written. According to Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 78, "By a limited Constitution, I understand one which contains certain specified exceptions to the legislative authority; such, for instance, as that it shall pass no bills of attainder, no ex post facto laws, and the like. Limitations of this kind can be preserved in practice no other than through the medium of the courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void. Without this, all the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing ..." In 1803, the court assumed the power of judicial review in Marbury v. Madison, when Chief Justice John Marshall and his court declared that Congress could not amend the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court without amending the Constitution.

Another way the court has expanded its influence on public policy is through broadly interpreting the "commerce clause" of the Constitution. This began with Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), when Marshall said regulating commerce included regulating the transportation of goods, not just the buying and selling of goods.

The court continued to redefine the power to regulate commerce to include a potpourri of commercial activities over which the federal government expanded its reach. In 1905, as a result of Swift and Co. v. United States, the "stream of commerce" doctrine extended regulatory control over meatpacking to the federal government by allowing Congress to regulate at any point along the "stream".

In Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States (1964), it was ruled within the law to regulate a privately owned accommodation, because it used national advertising to solicit out of state customers and provide accommodations to them. This ruling helped to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in public accommodations involved in interstate commerce.

Sometimes the courts put up roadblocks to the implementation of progressive public policy by narrowly interpreting the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868, restricted state governments from depriving individuals of their civil rights and liberties. In the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), Justice Miller narrowly interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment's "privileges and immunities clause" by saying that property and labor weren't included in the fundamental rights. He said that these rights were subject to state regulation for the good of the community. This left it up to the Southern states to protect the basic rights of newly freed black people.

The Civil War amendments were passed to abolish slavery and secure equal rights. However, the courts did not enforce these rights based on what we would consider today as basic human rights principles. They were to prove themselves not infallible for over a half-century; first striking down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give Congress authority to prevent discrimination by private individuals. States began segregating most public facilities, and victims were subject to state jurisdiction. …

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