4
The US Supreme Court

Constitutions require interpretation. This is partly because particular words and phrases have an ambiguous or subjective character. Is, for example, the right to ‘bear arms’ – assured in the second amendment – conditional upon individuals serving in the ‘well regulated militia’ specified in the first part of the sentence? What does the ‘equal protection of the laws’, guaranteed in the fourteenth amendment, mean in practice? What conditions must be met if an individual accused of a crime is to be afforded ‘due process of law’, as required by the fifth and fourteenth amendments? However, difficulties also arise because the commonly accepted meaning of particular words and phrases has changed over time. What, today, constitutes the ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ that is prohibited by the eighth amendment? The provisions of the Constitution also have to be applied to specific and inevitably complex issues. Does, for example, the random checking of bags on a bus in a search for drugs – by feeling their contents from the outside – breach the fourth amendment’s prohibition of ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’?

Furthermore, how should the Constitution be read? Should it be understood in narrow, literal terms? Should its words and phrases be examined in terms of the original meaning put upon them – in so far as it can be discerned – by their authors? Should the broader spirit of the Constitution’s provisions be applied to the standards of the modern age? Should the implications of particular terms be considered? Do, for example, the different Articles and amendments imply a ‘right to privacy’, as some suggest? Should the constitutionality of particular measures be judged on the basis of their intent or of their outcome?

Although all these questions are of far-reaching political importance, they are determined by the federal courts rather than the elected branches of government. Their role is drawn from their power of judicial review. Although the Constitution assigned the Supreme Court – and the lower federal courts – other functions, including that of ruling on disputes involving the United States government, resolving controversies between states, and hearing cases arising under federal law, the courts can – if an appropriate case is brought forward –

-52-

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US Politics Today
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Tables vii
  • List of Boxes ix
  • Preface and Acknowledgements xi
  • 1 - Differences and Divisions 1
  • 2 - A Shared Culture 20
  • 3 - The Us Constitution 33
  • 4 - The Us Supreme Court 52
  • 5 - Congress 79
  • 6 - The President 102
  • 7 - The President and the Executive Branch 135
  • 8 - Federalism- The Role of the States 157
  • 9 - Political Parties 177
  • 10 - Elections and Campaigns 209
  • 11 - Interest Groups and Lobbying 249
  • 12 - Ideologies, Issues and Controversies 271
  • Appendix I- A Brief Chronology of the United States since 1789 289
  • Appendix II- The Us Constitution 293
  • Index 309
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