U.S. Supreme Court
America’s founding fathers didn’t want a dominating federal government. So they split its powers among Congress, the president and the courts. The top judicial body, the Supreme Court, is made up of justices nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. If the justices then meet the Constitution’s sole requirement for the job — “good Behaviour” in the original text — they remain on the court until voluntary retirement or death. The system was designed to keep these judges free from election pressures. Nevertheless, the court’s decisions on issues including race relations and presidential reach have become more polarized in recent years and its public approval rating is sliding. The most recent vacancy on the court highlighted the divide.
Neil Gorsuch was sworn in as the nation’s 13th Supreme Court justice on April 10. The seat was vacant for over a year following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. Justices chosen by Republican presidents have controlled the nine-member court since 1969, leading to 5-4 decisions that extended an individual’s right to own guns, lifted restrictions on corporate campaign spending and limited class-action lawsuits. Scalia’s death left an even split between Republican and Democratic appointees on the court. President Barack Obama, a Democrat in his last year as president, would have had a chance to reverse the court’s ideological slant. But after he nominated Merrick Garland, chief judge of the federal appeals court in Washington, to fill the seat, Republican senators refused to hold confirmation hearings. Their strategy was rewarded when Republican Donald Trump was elected in November. Trump had promised to nominate conservative justices in the Scalia mold. In January, he picked Gorsuch, 49, a champion of religious liberty on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Many Senate Democrats were still furious over the blockade of Garland. Senate rules called for a supermajority of 60 votes to cut off a debate and allow a vote on a Supreme Court nominee. Republicans hold just 52 of the 100 Senate seats; the first vote to end the Gorsuch debate fell short at 55-45. So Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked the “nuclear option” and called for a simple majority vote to change these rules on filibusters, which passed, allowing Gorsuch to be confirmed April 7.
The Supreme Court was established in 1789 with a chief justice and five associates. For decades, each associate justice was also required to “ride circuit” to hear cases in circuit courts, sometimes hundreds of miles away on horseback. This made for a job suited only for the fit; Justice Iredell James died in 1799 at age 48 from overwork. The number of justices gradually rose to 10 in 1863 before settling at nine in 1869. The court’s decisions have frequently shifted the nation’s political direction, from Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 (which desegregated public schools), to Roe v. Wade in 1973 (which legalized abortion in every state), to Bush v. Gore in 2000 (which stopped a vote recount in Florida, making George W. Bush the president). So tensions are sharpened when a nomination falls to a president and Senate of opposing parties. In 1987, a Democratic-controlled Senate rejected Republican President Ronald Reagan’s nominee Robert Bork for his “originalist” views — that the Constitution should be interpreted as originally written — that could have led to rollbacks on abortion and voting rights. The court was made up only of white men until Thurgood Marshall became the first black justice in 1967. Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman on the court in 1981; Sonia Sotomayor, who joined in 2009, is the first Hispanic justice.
Supporters of lifetime tenure say it allows the views of justices to evolve far from the ideologies of the presidents who named them with no fear of retribution. Yet in recent years, scholars note, presidents have dug deep to select nominees whose firm convictions aren’t likely to shift over time. Where once major rulings, like Brown, were the product of unanimous votes, the number of important decisions that rest on a 5-4 split has been rising. Chief Justice John Roberts has said this could undermine the court’s legitimacy as an institution that transcends politics. The absence of mandatory retirement has let some aging justices continue working after strokes that caused mental debilitation. And the slow turnover means the court’s makeup has lagged behind the nation’s changing demographics. (Five of the 9 justices are white men.) Critics note the court lacks external supervision, so there’s no recourse when justices appear to violate ethics standards or hear cases in which they have conflicts of interest. Reformers say one solution is term limits. Some suggest an 18-year cap, staggered so each presidential term would bring two new faces to the court. Others think 10 years would be better, an idea supported by two-thirds of Americans in a 2015 poll.
The Reference Shelf
- The Supreme Court of the United States’s website details its current members, their circuit assignments, audio recordings of oral arguments and information on how to visit the court.
- Martin-Quinn Scores measure the relative locations of the Supreme Court justices on an ideological continuum.
- Journal of Politics paper: “Predicting Drift on Politically Insulated Institutions: A Study of Ideological Drift on the United States Supreme Court.”
- A Bloomberg news profile of Neil Gorsuch, a graphic on how Gorsuch cases fared at the Supreme Court and a QuickTake Q&A on an issue that arose during his confirmation hearing: the Chevron doctrine.
- A Bloomberg graphic: “Eighty is the new 70 as Supreme Court Justices Serve Longer and Longer.”
- Bloomberg Professional Service customers can access in-depth news and analysis on the court at BLAW<GO>.
First published Feb. 19, 2016
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