Understanding the Challenges Facing a Supreme Court Justice

By Salvato, Nancy | The World and I, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Challenges Facing a Supreme Court Justice


Salvato, Nancy, The World and I


With President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), many speculated whether or not she would survive the vetting process and how her confirmation could affect the makeup of the court. Everyone nominated to serve on the Supreme Court should be carefully vetted because, like it or not, Supreme Court decisions have the potential to affect a large segment of the population even though the legislature is the branch of government charged to enact legislation and is therefore held accountable to the public for policy decisions. In order to understand how a Supreme Court Justice, such as Sotomayor, might influence the highest court, one needs a basic understanding of the Court's responsibilities and how each Justice is expected to perform in this important role.

First and foremost, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states, "This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding." To put it simply, "Judges are obligated to observe and uphold the Constitution." This mandate is more complicated than one could possibly imagine.

The U.S. Constitution called for a national judiciary which provides for Inferior courts, district or circuit courts whose decisions can be appealed to a higher court; and for a Supreme Court, the highest court in the land. The Supreme Court was provided original jurisdiction. In other words, it is the court in which a case first appears or originates, in cases involving ambassadors, certain public officials, and disputes between states. It exercises appellate jurisdiction when it hears a case that has already been heard by another court. (1)

"The Court may not exercise any of its appellate jurisdiction without congressional authorization, and Congress may limit the appellate jurisdiction however it chooses. Congress has authorized the Court to use its full appellate jurisdiction, except on rare occasions." (2)

Cases heard in the Supreme Court usually raise questions about the Constitution or federal law. "Federal judges may interpret the law only through the resolution of actual legal disputes." (3)

The historical basis for the responsibility of judicial review stems from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall's ruling that the Supreme Court had the prime responsibility for reviewing enactments that concerned the courts. Although this ruling did not encompass the review of general law emanating from the powers of the legislative or executive branches of government, today the Supreme Court rules on issues of legislative power; power reserved to the states under the Tenth Amendment; and powers granted the president. Hence, the Supreme Court reviews questionable state and federal legislative enactments (laws) and executive rules and actions (legal decisions) in order to determine whether they are in accord with the expressed or implied provisions (laws) of the written Constitution. (4)

"Judicial review is both a powerful and controversial tool because it allows the Supreme Court to have the ultimate word on what the Constitution means. This permits the Court justices--who are appointed rather than elected--to overrule decisions already made by Congress and legislatures throughout the country." (5)

Precedence contributes predictability

The Supreme Court searches for precedents, prior decisions, to justify their arguments in any case under their consideration. "Stare decisis" means following precedent, following what earlier judges decided in similar cases.

"Precedent contributes predictability to the law because it provides notice of what a person's rights and obligations are in particular circumstances.

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