Why Does The United States Supreme Court Have So Much Power?

How far does the power of the US Supreme Court go? 1:20

(WABNEWS Spanish) — With recent decisions on abortion, gun control, religious freedom and the environment, the United States Supreme Court once again reaffirmed its central role in the country.

The nine judges are not elected, they serve for life and until recently they were all white men. But his actions have helped define the American way of life for more than two centuries.

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Here are several common questions about the court, its composition, and its power:

What does the Supreme Court do?

In essence, the court decides whether laws and government actions are constitutional and describes the breadth and limits of government.

When a case reaches the Supreme Court, usually through a multi-year process, it is important because the precedent that the majority opinion establishes is the standard by which future laws are measured. That’s because of the principle of “stare decisis,” Latin for “support a decision,” where a current court must be bound by previous rulings.

Are Supreme Court decisions final?

Yes, in the sense that they cannot be revoked by another body.

But no, in the sense that the court can overturn or change its own precedent over time, as it did with decisions allowing racial segregation or with last month’s reversal of the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the constitutional right to have an abortion.

Can Congress override decisions?

Not directly, but Congress can pass laws that respond to rulings.

For example, the court ruled in 2007 that Lilly Ledbetter had not filed an equal pay discrimination complaint within the allowed time period (because she did not discover the discrepancy until years later). President Barack Obama signed a law in 2009 which removed those previous restrictions.

What about reforming the Constitution?

The Supreme Court interprets the Constitution, so amending the document changes how the court can rule. But amending the Constitution is a Herculean political task that requires, in theory, massive public support, which does not exist for either party at the moment.

Are the judges of the Supreme Court elected?

No. They are appointed by the president and then sent to the Senate for confirmation.

How many judges are there and who appointed them?

Nine. Everyone has the same vote.

Chief Justice John Roberts (George W. Bush, 2005).

Judge Clarence Thomas (George HW Bush, 1991).

Judge Samuel Alito (GWB, 2006).

Justice Sonia Sotomayor (Barack Obama, 2009).

Justice Elena Kagan (Obama, 2010).

Judge Neil Gorsuch (Donald Trump, 2017).

Judge Brett Kavanaugh (Trump, 2018).

Justice Amy Coney Barrett (Trump, 2020).

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson (Joe Biden, 2022).

Ketanji Brown Jackson is sworn in before the Supreme Court 3:56 Why do some presidents get to appoint more than others?

Luck and politics. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama each served eight years and were confirmed by two justices each.

Trump served a term and named three— One because Obama’s final 2016 nominee was blocked by Republicans, one due to a retirement, and one, just before the 2020 presidential election, because of the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Are there any requirements to be a judge?

No. It is more common for nominees now to have a strong legal background (Ivy League law school, clerk experience for previous judges, or federal appeals court experience), but none of that is required.

Kagan was a Harvard law professor and attorney general (a top Justice Department lawyer), but she was never a judge. The late Chief Justice Earl Warren had been Governor of California.

Are Supreme Court justices appointed for life?

Yes, just like judges on other federal courts, and they can serve until death or retirement. It means that, in theory, they are insulated from the whims of the political branches. But that doesn’t make judges popular: Current polls show that less than a third of Americans trust the court.

Can Supreme Court judges be removed?

Yes, through an impeachment trial, the same process that was used to impeach the president of the United States. The House would vote to impeach, and the Senate would have a trial and vote to impeach the judge. However, it has never happened for the Supreme Court justice.

What is “court packaging”?

The Constitution does not say how many judges the court must have, but the number has been fixed at nine since the mid-19th century and has been codified into law ever since. In theory, the president can nominate and the Senate can confirm more justices to steer the court in the desired direction.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suggested this in the 1930s after the court struck down many of his “New Deal” policies. Recently faced with a court that has six conservatives and three liberals, Democratic politicians have suggested adding several more justices to tip the balance of power.

How does the court work?

The Supreme Court first met in 1790, as the highest court in the judicial branch of government. The judges are headed by the Chief Justice of the United States (that’s the official title). The court has occupied its current building in Washington only since 1935. Previously, it borrowed space in the Senate chambers at the US Capitol.

Traditionally, each term begins on the first Monday in October, and final opinions are usually issued in late June. Judges divide their time between “sessions,” where they hear cases and issue decisions, and “recesses,” where they meet in private to write their decisions and consider other matters before the court.

In the courtroom, judges are seated by seniority, with the chief justice in the middle and younger judges on the outside. Before public arguments and private conferences, where decisions are discussed, the nine members shake hands as a sign of harmony of purpose.

As the gavel sounds and the judges sit down, the master of ceremonies shouts the traditional welcome, which reads: “Oyez! Hey! Hey! All persons who have matters before the honorable Supreme Court of the United States are cautioned to come forward and pay attention, because the court is already seated. God save America and this honorable court.”

Since most cases involve appellate review of other court decisions, there are no juries or witnesses, just attorneys for both sides heading to court. Arguments typically last about an hour, with lawyers for both sides often seeing their prepared oral briefs interrupted by scathing questions from the judges. In recent years, the court has given each judge five minutes to ask questions, in the following order: from the presiding judge to the youngest.

This question-and-answer replication requires lawyers to think concisely and logically on the fly. And the tone of the questions often gives a glimpse of a judge’s thinking, a barometer of his decision-making.

After the arguments, conferences are scheduled, where the judges discuss and vote on the cases. In these closed-door sessions, the nine members are alone. Clerks and employees are not allowed. Transcripts are not preserved.

Judges spend much of their time reviewing cases and writing opinions. And they must decide which cases they will hear in open court. When asked just before her retirement in 2006 who the jurists were most of the time, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said bluntly: “We read. We read an average of 1,500 pages a day. Read. Sometimes we write. Justice Antonin Scalia added: “We try to carve out a little bit of time to think.”

Cameras are not allowed and, until the covid-19 pandemic, live audio for oral arguments was also unavailable, meaning the actions of nine men and women that can affect every aspect of American life are taking place in the shadows.

WABNEWS’s Bill Mears contributed to this report.

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