Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Civics Lesson: The United States Supreme Court

What do you know about the Supreme Court of the United States, or SCOTUS? Here's a crash course:

Who can be a Supreme Court Justice? There is no written requirement that a justice must have a law degree, any particular level of education, or be of a certain age. In fact, in 1941, James Byrnes became a Supreme Court justice even though he never finished high school but had taught himself law. He only served for one year. However, it is rare now for a person without a law background to become a SCOTUS justice.

Names are put forward as nominees by the President to the Senate. The Senate Judicial Committee then reviews the nominee, which can be a long process and includes in-depth interviews commonly televised for anyone to follow. When the Senate is done investigating the person, they have a simple majority vote as to whether they approve this person as a Justice.

It's important to note that the United States Supreme Court is not meant to be political, only to decide legal matters without regard to party affiliation.
How many judges serve on the SCOTUS?
The number of judges has increased over the years and currently, there is Chief Justice, John Roberts, and 8 Associate Justices. These are:
  • Anthony Kennedy
  • Clarence Thomas
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the oldest at age 84
  • Stephen Breyer
  • Samuel Alto
  • Sonia Sotomayor
  • Elena Kagan
  • Neil Gorsuch, the youngest at age 50

Are there term limits for Supreme Court Justices? No, Supreme Court Justices are able to serve for the rest of their lives, or until they resign, retire, or are impeached. While only one justice had impeachment proceedings begun on him, they did not result in his being removed. Thus, openings for these positions do not come up often.

Why do judges wear robes? They aren't required to wear them, it's just a tradition that began in England. Wearing a robe for study was a way to set scholars apart from non-scholars (this is also why people wear robes upon graduation from school, as a traditional distinction). Initially, robes were brightly colored, but eventually people went to an all-black robe. In England, judges and attorneys still wear curled wigs as part of their 'uniform,' but American attorneys wear suits, judges wear robes, and none of them wear wigs.

A rare look inside the Supreme Court building, which is around the corner from the Library of Congress:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Unyswl36q8w

Does the SCOTUS hear all cases presented to it? No. The Supreme Court receives requests to hear between 7,000 and 8,000 cases every year. Of these, they typically hear less than 100. The people involved want the Supreme Court to offer their opinion as the "Court of Last Resort," and their ruling is final, and cannot be appealed any further.

Each state also has a State Supreme Court. In Minnesota, there are currently 6 Supreme Court justices who are appointed by the governor and serve 6 year terms. They have a mandatory retirement age of 70. The State Supreme Court's main function is to hear appeals of court decisions, sometimes involving Worker's Compensation or tax claims, in addition to criminal cases. They review about 700 cases per year but only hear about 70 of those. In Minnesota, you must have a law degree in order to be a Supreme Court Justice. The State Supreme Court also officiates the Bar Exam for people seeking to become attorneys. http://mncourts.gov/About-The-Courts/SupremeCourt.aspx
Here are the steps in having a case heard by the Supreme Court:
  • 1. The case has to have already been tried in a lower court
  • 2. The side that has lost its case may file an appeal to SCOTUS.
  • 3. The odds of the case being heard by the SCOTUS are low (less than 100 of several thousand applicants). If 4 of the 9 justices think the case has merit, and the lower courts have had conflicting opinions, then the court will hear it.
  • 4. If accepted, the requestor has 45 days to file reasons for appeal. The opposing side has 30 days to file its response.
  • 5. The oral arguments for the case are limited to 30 minutes for either side.
  • 6. Then the SCOTUS deliberates and gives their decision.

Often, the justices vote unanimously as to their opinion, but when they are divided, this can sometimes indicate their political leadings (conservative or liberal).
Here is the website for the SCOTUS:  https://www.supremecourt.gov/

Some examples of important ("Landmark") cases decided by the Supreme Court, both good and bad:

Dred Scott vs. Sanford     1857
Dred Scott was a slave whose owner brought him to Illinois and later to Minnesota territory. When his owner died, he argued that he was free because he now lived in a free state. The court disagreed:
" . . . We think they [people of African ancestry] are . . . not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word "citizens" in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. . . ." — Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, speaking for the majority

Miranda vs. State of Arizona     1966
Ernesto Miranda was arrested, but not informed of his 5th Amendment rights not to incriminate himself. The court decided that he should have been better informed: ". . . the prosecution may not use statements, whether exculpatory or inculpatory, stemming from custodial interrogation of the defendant unless it demonstrates the use of procedural safeguards effective to secure the privilege against self-incrimination." —Chief Justice Earl Warren, speaking for the majority  *This led to the expression: Read him his Miranda Rights. These rights are always spoken to a person arrested. "You have the right to remain silent..."

Roe v. Wade        1973
This was a suit brought by a woman wishing not to use her real name, so she used the name "Roe." Wade was the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas. Ms. Roe held that laws against abortion violated her right to personal liberty and privacy, and went against the 1st, 4th, 5th, 9th, and 14th amendments. The Supreme Court agreed and thus made abortions legal in the United States, negating any state laws that said differently. “We … acknowledge our awareness of the sensitive and emotional nature of the abortion controversy, of the vigorous opposing views, even among physicians, and of the deep and seemingly absolute convictions that the subject inspires.” — Justice Blackmun (1973), majority opinion in Roe v. Wade

Brown vs. Board of Education          1954
The Brown family children, from Topeka, Kansas, had to walk a far and dangerous distance to catch a bus to their all-black school. The State of Kansas claimed that their school was equal to the white schools which were closer to their home, but the Supreme Court ruled that "Separate" automatically means "Not Equal," and that the practice of segregation violated the 14th Amendment"We conclude that the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." —Chief Justice Earl Warren

United States against Richard Nixon      1974
President Nixon installed a tape recorder in his office to record conversations he had about having people break in to a room in the Watergate Hotel in Washington and by other means spy on Democratic goings-on. He then refused to share all the recordings that had been made in an attempt to cover himself from incrimination. The Supreme Court argued that he needed to release all the recordings in their ruling.                    
". . . Absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, we find it difficult to accept the . . . [absolute] confidentiality of presidential communications." — Chief Justice Warren Burger

For other landmark cases decided by the SCOTUS:  http://landmarkcases.org/en/Landmark/Cases