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Chapter 12: Supreme Court Decision Making

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1 Chapter 12: Supreme Court Decision Making
Section 1: The Supreme Court at Work Section 2: Shaping Public Policy Section 3: Influencing Court Decisions


3 Section 1: The Supreme Court @ Work
I: The Court’s Procedures A. During two week sessions, justices hear oral arguments on cases and then meet in secret to make decisions. B. The justices consider arguments in cases they have heard and petitions from plaintiffs and then write opinions for cases they have decided. C. Justices’ written opinions interpret the law and help shape public policy.

4 II: How Cases Reach the Court
The majority of referred cases concern appeals from lower courts. Most appeals concern cases in which a lower state or federal court has ruled laws unconstitutional. Cases the court chooses not to hear are dismissed, and the ruling of the lower court becomes final. Most cases reach the court by writ of certiorari, in which either side petitions that a lower court’s decision involved an error raising a serious constitutional issue. The solicitor general is appointed by the president and acts as the government’s lawyer.

5 How Does the Court Choose Cases?
The chief justice puts worthy certiorari cases on a list for discussion; 2/3 of all appealed cases never make it to this list. 4 of the 9 justices have to agree to hear a case from the list. Some cases are decided by a brief, unsigned per curiam opinion; the rest are given the court’s full consideration.

6 III: Steps in Deciding Major Cases
Each side submits a brief outlining its legal arguments, the facts in the case, the history of the case in lower courts and relevant precedents. People and groups may submit amicus curiae briefs Lawyers for each side make oral arguments during which justices may ask them questions. On Wednesdays & Fridays, the chief justice presides over a closed conference, in which each single case is summarized and recommendations for handling it are made

7 Steps Continued The justices spend about 30 minutes debating each case. Each justice has one vote; a majority vote is needed to decide a case. The justices then issue one of four kinds of opinions: A unanimous opinion A majority opinion A concurring opinion A dissenting opinion If the chief justice votes with the majority, s/he assigns a justice in the majority to write the Court’s opinion. Otherwise, the most senior justice with the majority assigns a justice to write the opinion.

8 Section 2: Shaping Public Policy
The Court makes policy in three ways: Using judicial review Interpreting laws Overruling or reversing its previous decisions Using its power of judicial review, the Court may examine laws and actions at all levels of government and cancel them if they violate the Constitution. The Court uses its power of judicial review more often at the state level than the national level (as in Brown & Miranda)


10 Shaping Policy continued
The Court’s interpretation of the very general language of laws allows it to decide how the law applies to specific situations. The Court’s rulings become precedents on which to base other, similar decisions; but the Court may overturn or reverse its earlier decisions (Dred Scott & Plessy) Remember the idea of keeping the Constitution a “living document”?

11 Limits on the Court Major topics the Court concerns itself with include: civil liberties, econ. Issues, federal laws, due process and suits against govt. officials. The Court plays a minor role in foreign policy. (why?) Civil liberties cases make up the largest # of Court cases (appeals from prisoners make up about 1/4 of all its cases) The Court won’t take a case simply to decide a point of law: What’s the constitutional question at stake? Has the plaintiff suffered real harm? Is there a federal issue that needs resolution?

12 Limits continued The Court does not have original jurisdiction over most cases that it hears, so it hears cases that come to it from other places in the legal system. This means that events beyond the Court’s control shape its agenda. The Court signals its interest in an area by agreeing to hear a specific case. Remember that the court has no power to enforce its decisions. It doesn’t really have a way to monitor compliance by lower courts.

13 Section 3: What Influences Court Decisions?
Basing decisions on the law Justices must be guided by the law, not their personal opinions. Decisions reflect the court’s interpretation of a law based on The Constitution Relevant statutes Legal precedents

14 Views of the Justices Justices monitor important issues; some become identified with a particular issue. As justices leave the court, the majority voting blocs on certain issues may change. Many now regard Justice Kennedy as a swing vote Do justices always get along? On the modern court, they meet for discussion, but often communicate in writing. Personal relations among the justices can play a role in the Court’s decisions The chief justice needs to be skilled in promoting harmony

15 The Court & Society The Court is largely free from public opinion and political pressures. Why did the Framers set it up this way? Justices are influenced by the values and beliefs of society; their opinions reflect major changes in society. This is why so many of their cases are controversial--not everyone likes the change the ruling represents. This is where the pejorative term “activist” court comes into play, but “activist” is largely a matter of opinion. For example, people may view the Roe decision as overly activist, but be comfortable with the Brown decision. One person’s view of the court taking corrective action is another person’s view of the justices “making law from the bench.”

16 Balancing the Court’s Power
The Supreme Court is subject to checks and balances just like the other two branches of government. The president appoints members to the court. (every full-term president but Carter has done this). Thus, the president has an influence over the makeup of the court. As the head of the executive branch, it is the responsibility of the president to enforce the court’s decisions, which may be done vigorously or not at all. Congress controls the Court’s jurisdiction. So it could choose to limit the court’s ability to hear certain types of cases. Congress could also “overrule “ the court by passing a Constitutional amendment. The Senate confirms justices’ appointments to the court, thereby shaping the Courts’ position on social issues. Congress also can set, but not lower the salaries of the justices.


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