All Eyes on the Supreme Court: What to Know about the Highest Court in the United States
With the recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a contentious debate over who will fill her seat, all eyes are on the Supreme Court. To stay informed about the current political and legal events, here’s what you should know about the highest court in the United States.
The Basics of the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court, part of the judicial branch of the government, is the highest court in the United States. This means that the Supreme Court has the final and official say in all cases from federal and state courts. It can also “check” decisions made by the executive or legislative branches. For example, if the president issues a law that violates the Constitution, the Supreme Court can deny the president’s ability to pass that law.
Throughout its long history, the Supreme Court has overseen many major decisions, including:
- Dred Scot v. Sanford in 1857, which denied citizenship to black slaves
- Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled in 1896 that segregation was constitutional as long as it was “separate but equal.”
- Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954, which overturned the “separate but equal” decision of Plessy v. Ferguson
- Korematsu v. the United States, which upheld the use of internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II
- Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage in 1967
- Roe v. Wade in 1973, which gave women the right to an abortion during the first two trimesters of pregnancy
As these landmark cases show, the cases that come before the Supreme Court are often controversial and highly consequential. Because of this—and because Supreme Court justices serve for life – the process of getting a new justice on the Supreme Court is often rife with political tension.
The Appointment Process
When there is a vacancy due to death or retirement, a nominee is appointed by the president. The nominee goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where they answer questions from committee members about topics like their background, their commitment to uphold the Constitution, and how they would vote on certain issues. If the Senate Judiciary Committee votes to put the nominee before the rest of the Senate, the Senate will vote on whether or not to confirm the appointment. They must reach a unanimous decision to move forward. If they reject the nominee, the president has to nominate someone else and the process starts over again.
Since the Supreme Court plays such a large role in upholding laws, both Republicans and Democrats want a justice who is sympathetic to their party’s platform. Democrats, for example, want justices who will continue to uphold a decision like Roe v. Wade, while many Republicans hope to eventually overturn the decision to legalize abortion. This is what often makes the nomination process so contentious, as Democrats might try to stop the appointment of a Republican justice, or vice versa.
Many people pay way more attention to the president and Congress than they do to the Supreme Court, but with the ability to make decisions that affect all Americans for years to come, the Supreme Court always deserves more attention. It is, after all, the highest court in the United States.
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