The Supreme Court and American Life

The Marble Temple: The Supreme Court of the United States (Source:Online)

The Supreme Court is a critical branch of the American government, but it is the most distant branch of the American people. Unlike president and Congress representative, the Supreme Court Justices are not based on the election. The president select Justice and the nomination have to get approved by the Senators. To keep the Supreme Court away from public interest and popular influence, the Court Justices, compare to Presidents and Congress members, rarely receive exposure from media. Justices don’t use social media and tweet controversial statements like our president, they barely get on the National News, and they even rarely receive interviews. However, the Supreme Court plays a vital role in American politics. The Court is “a vital national seminar” that engage government and the public into dialogues and plays a pivotal role in shaping the national policy agenda and the political process.

Since the 1950s, the Supreme Court, through groundbreaking rulings such as Brown v. Board of Education, established itself as the champion of civil rights and civil liberties. On the other side, the court has been criticized as the Imperial Judiciary with too much power. One theory rejected the Imperial Judiciary criticism. The Court doesn’t have overwhelming power, in fact, it has little power that it is only a “hollow hope” for civil-rights groups. The Hallow Hope theory states that the court doesn’t have sufficient power to enforce the protection on civil rights and liberties; the civil right groups should look elsewhere to state and national legislature. Just like President Jackson once said: “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” The Court doesn’t have the power to impose its ruling. It strongly relies on the support from the President, the Congress, and the public. Therefore, the Supreme Court cannot produce significant social change. Brown v. Board of Education reflected the reality of Hallow Hope. Despite the groundbreaking Brown decision, the Department of Justice made little progress in enforcing the desegregation in the South until the passage of the Civil Right Act 10 years later. Even after the Civil Right Act, the question of desegregation and integration of public education institution remains a problem until the 1990s. However, the Hallow Hope claim overlooked the important role of the Supreme Court as an educational institution. Although the Court might not push for changes and impose its ruling by itself, it engages the American people and the government in a national dialogue. The dialogue certain mobilized interest groups and sparked social movements that produce significant outcomes.

The Supreme Court is a vital national seminar that has significant educational value. By taking certain cases, the court raises the awareness of the social issues and engages the public in a national discussion. Through Supreme Court decision, some social issues got national attention and even became a significant part of American culture. The Miranda v. Arizona case identified a set of rights criminal suspects enjoy, the so-called Miranda Rights. This case engaged the American public and the law enforcement into a prolonged discussion on the rights of criminal suspects. Miranda Rights appears in movies, dramas, and TV series. According to Justice Rehnquist, the Miranda Rights is unrepealable because it becomes a “cultural icon.” The Supreme Court can repeal the previous Supreme Court decision, but it cannot repeal movies and books. The Brown v. Board of Education, despite its limited role to desegregate schools, raise the problem of segregation to national attention, engage the entire nation into a political discussion about separate but equal and sparked the civil right movement.

The Court also plays an essential role in shaping the public policy agenda and the political process. In the famous Citizen’s United vs. FEC in 2010, the Court repealed the BCRA of 2002 that limited the soft money. In the decision, Justice Scalia declared that Money is Speech. It opened the gate of Money Politics, and campaign donation flushed into elections. In both 2012 and 2016 elections, Democratic Party President Nominee Obama and Hilary Clinton received more than 1 billion dollars of campaign fund. The Citizen’s United Case terminated the effort of campaign reform since the 1970s and fundamentally changed the political and election process. Perhaps there is no case influences the national and state political agenda like Roe v. Wade, the legendary case that upheld the right of abortion. The Republican Party Presidents, from Nixon to Reagan and Bush, took repealing the decision of Roe as a vital political mission. The mission to repeal Roe influenced Reagan’s appointment of ideological conservative Justices, justice like Scalia, on the bench of the Supreme Court. This practice of Republican Party President appointing justices base on ideology became a standard practice that continues to today. In the state level, the Roe v. Wade sparked a wave of the state legislatures that tried to impose regulations on abortion and undermine the decision of Wade. In 1992, with Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Roe v. Wade was upheld, but the essence was defeated.

As these examples show, the Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court of the land, is an essential part of the American political life. Since the birth of the United States, the Supreme Court took different roles to influence and shape American politics. During the 19th century, the court was the great defender; it upheld the unity of the new republic by defending the interstate commerce and the power of the Federal Government. During the age of Industrial Revolution, the Court became the regulator; it regulated the fast-growing economy and resolved the conflicting interests among the government, the captain of industries and the people. Since the 1940s, the Supreme Court is the guardian; it protects the civil right and liberties and extends the Bill of Right to the state level. Even until today, The Court engages the nation in meaningful conversations on same-sex marriage and debates over the definition of “Enemy Combatant.” Today, the Marble Temple in DC still attracts numerous tourists every day and serves as the Mecca of law school students. What is more significant than the Supreme Court itself are American Constitutionalism, the fluidity of law, and the rule of law; these are the spirits coined by the framers in the American Constitution and the backbone of American democracy.




Foreign Affair + East Asia Studies at UVA International Relations and Foreign Policy Researcher; Interests: Foreign Policy, East Asia Politics, Environment

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Zhuoran Li

Zhuoran Li

Foreign Affair + East Asia Studies at UVA International Relations and Foreign Policy Researcher; Interests: Foreign Policy, East Asia Politics, Environment

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