4 min read
One Vote Away: A Primer to the Supreme Court and Its Legal Powers

Brandon Amaltov

With the recent leak over the possible overturning of Roe vs. Wade, people may be asking themselves what is so important about the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade? Before the 2020 presidential elections, some Democrats considered trying to add more justices to the courts current amount of 9. The court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade has the potential to give progressives new motivation to attempt “court stacking” and overturn the court’s decision by changing its balance of power. This article will help explain what the Supreme Court is doing by overturning Roe vs. Wade, what it means for the American people and the importance of the Supreme Court's role in the US government. Looking at previous controversial cases may help shed some light on what specifically is the Supreme Court’s role, the importance in having a balanced court, and help us understand exactly how they come to make their decisions. 

The balance of the Supreme Court of the United States may be a confusing topic for some, but the Judicial branch is an important branch that helps to maintain proper checks and balances for the Federal Government of the United States. The term ‘Checks and balances', refers to the three branches of government, the legislative, executive, and judicial branches working together to keep the American government a government “by the people, for the people”, thereby preventing individual branches from seizing disproportionate powers. 

The legislative branch is made up of the House of Representatives, and the Senate, collectively known as Congress. Each representative represents a certain district within the state, but the number of districts (and also representatives) is determined by population, and some states have a far larger number (for example California with 52) then others (such as Wyoming with just one). On the other hand, senators represent their states as a whole and each state gets 2 senators each, regardless of population. Congress is also responsible for declaring war, regulating interstate and foreign commerce and controlling taxing and spending policies

The executive branch consists of the President, his or her advisors and various departments and agencies. The President is elected by the country as a whole, through the electoral college. This branch is responsible for enforcing the laws of the land. 

The judicial branch is where the Supreme Court sits. Whereas the executive and legislative branches are elected by the people, members of the Judicial Branch are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. They serve for life or until they decide to retire. The primary responsibility of the Supreme Court is to determine the constitutionality of federal laws and resolve other disputes about federal laws. This is extremely important as the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, it is the Founding Fathers’ authoritative doctrine for what kind of country the United States is supposed to be. By interpreting and deciding the constitutionality of laws made, the Supreme Court essentially has the power to decide what the rights of the people are, contingent on their understanding of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court not only acts to interpret the constitution, it acts to protect it from one of the other branches enacting laws that are infringing on constitutional rights. Adding one seat in the Supreme Court can make all the difference in swinging a tie, and deciding whether or not a law is constitutional. There are currently 9 justices on the court, with many examples in which laws and cases were decided by a 5-to-4 vote. 

In the case of Van Orden vs. Perry, Thomas Van Orden sued Texas in federal district court, arguing a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the state capitol building represented an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. Orden argued this violated the First Amendment's establishment clause (separation of church and state), which prohibits the government from passing laws "respecting an establishment of religion.” The vote on whether or not to remove the monument was split 4-to-4, showing just how divided the interpretation of constitutional law can be. In the end, Justice Stephen G. Breyer cast the deciding vote to uphold the monument"). The Court held that the establishment clause did not bar the monument on the grounds of Texas' state capitol building. The plurality deemed the Texas monument was part of the nation's tradition of recognizing the Ten Commandments' historical meaning, even though the justices agreed that the Commandments are religious. In their decision, the majority ruled that "simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the establishment clause." 

One of the United States most fundamental and controversial issues to this day is in regards to the Second Amendment, which sets out the right to keep and bear arms. In the words of the Constitution, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” In 2008, in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., Dick Heller, A special police officer applied for a registration certificate from the city for a handgun he wished to keep at home. At the time the District of Columbia law banned handgun possession by making it a crime to carry an unregistered firearm and prohibiting the registration of handguns; providing separately that no person may carry an unlicensed handgun, but authorized the police chief to issue 1-year licenses; and required residents to keep lawfully owned firearms unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device. The District of Columbia denied Heller’s application based on this law. 

In turn, Heller filed a lawsuit in federal district court of Washington D.C. arguing that the city’s bar on the registration of handguns, its prohibition on guns in the home without a license, and its requirement of trigger-locks for lawful guns in the home all violated the Second Amendment"). After making its way to the Supreme Court, the justices held, (5-to-4) that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to possess firearms independent of service in a state militia and to use firearms for traditionally lawful purposes, including self-defense within the home. Heller had won the case but on very slim odds. One vote had changed the interpretation of the Second Amendment, and every individual’s rights. 

While the verdict of these cases may be argued over and even be subject to change, it shows just how complex and important the U.S. Supreme Court Justice system is in determining what falls under constitutional law. The case of Heller and the 2nd Amendment represents a fraction of the cases, where a single vote changed history, and United States law. The Justices themselves disagreed with each other, perhaps due to their political differences and understandings, but that is why it remains of utmost importance to maintain balance in the Supreme Court, regardless of political affiliation. If the Supreme Court leaned too heavily in one direction, then these historic votes may have had different outcomes, may have been unanimous, and could have changed history to only represent one way of thinking and one political initiative, without representing the collective U.S citizen. Should the Democrats decide to add more justices to the supreme court, they may find themselves regretting that decision the next time the republicans control Congress.

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