Under the United States Constitution, our government structure shall follow a system of government known as Federalism. It refers to the system of government which provides for a sharing of powers between the central government, known as the federal government and the government of each of the individual states.
As a result of the federal system of government, we also have two different court systems which interpret and apply the laws. These court systems have their own jurisdiction in hearing and deciding cases. This makes the United States’ judicial system very unique because it is made up of two distinct and independent court systems which are the federal court system and the state court system. At the top of this court structure is the United States Supreme Court which is considered as the final arbiter of all legal controversies.
The US Supreme Court plays a very crucial role in every democratic society. It is considered as the last place of refuge for every American citizen and non-citizens as well and is instrumental in ensuring that the President and the Congressmen and Senators act within the limits of the authority delegated to them by the Constitution. According to John J. Patrick, (2001), “the Supreme Court has used its power of judicial review to overturn more than 150 acts of Congress and more than 1,000 state laws. The great majority of these invalidations of federal and state acts have occurred during the 20th century… Most of the laws declared unconstitutional since 1925 have involved civil liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments concerned with the rights of individuals.” (p.3)
It is depressing, however, to find out that only a few young Americans understand its important role in our contemporary society. Study shows that only a few percentage of our population can name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court understand their role (Falkenstein, Kate, 2007 p.1)
This essay deals with the role of the United States Supreme Court in a democracy. It is perceived that the main function of the Supreme Court is to interpret the doubtful and ambiguous provisions of the Constitution. This research will show that the function of the Supreme Court has evolved over time. In the past years, it has been instrumental in setting policies that have expanded the rights guaranteed under the Bill of Rights. It has also placed restrictions and limitations on vast powers of the Executive and Legislative which is more than what is envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. Several cases will be discussed to prove that the Supreme Court has rendered invalid any actions of the Legislative and Executive Branches which are against the fundamental law.
II. Structure of the Federal Court System
The Federal Court System is that court system which deals with the enforcement of federal laws, rules and regulations. It also handles the interpretation and application of the United States Constitution, acts of Congress and Treaties. It also hears and decides controversies involving the US government or its officials those between the U.S and a foreign government and those between states.
At the top of the Federal Court System is the United States Supreme Court. It does not have exclusive power to interpret the Constitution since every citizen or non citizen of the United States has the prerogative to interpret the Constitution. It is however the last arbiter in the interpretation of the constitution. After the Supreme Court has made its ruling it is the last and final word. The second level consists of the United States Court of Appeals. Most of the cases heard by the Supreme Court have been decided by the Circuit Court of Appeals. There are 12 regional circuits in the United States and each of the 12 regional circuits has one court of appeals. The third level consists of the United States District Courts. It is considered as the court of general jurisdiction where a number of federal civil and criminal cases are first heard. In some instances cases heard by the US District Courts are appealed to the Supreme Court.
Under the present laws, there are two sources of cases that can be filed in federal courts. The first involves Federal Question Jurisdiction. These involve cases that raise the question on the interpretation and application of the United States Constitution, disputes involving the US government or its officials, or controversies between the US and a foreign government. On the other hand, “Diversity” or “Diversity of Citizenship” refers to cases involving citizens of different states or between a US citizen and a citizen of another country. One limitation however is that these cases are heard by federal courts to ensure fairness and impartiality in the hearing and the decision of these cases.
III. United States Supreme Court
The Unites States Supreme Court is the highest appellate court in the United States. It consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate justices. The current Chief Justice of the United States is John G. Roberts Jr. The Associate Justices are John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel A. Alito
The Supreme Court may sit En Banc or in three divisions. En banc refers to a session where the entire membership of the court participates in the deliberation of a particular case. If it wants to dispose of more cases, it sits in divisions of three. The rule is that a decision or ruling of a division of the Supreme Court has the same authority as that issued by the Supreme Court en banc.
Article III of the United States Constitution provides for the two types of jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to hear cases. The first is its appellate jurisdiction which is considered to be its most important jurisdiction. This is the power of the Supreme Court to review on appeal the decisions and orders of a lower court. Under this provision, the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction extends to: a) cases arising under the Constitution, federal law, or treaty; b) those involving admiralty and maritime matters; c) those in which the United States itself is a party; d) cases between two or more states; e) cases between citizens of different states or foreign countries; f) cases between a state and individuals or foreign countries; and g) cases between citizens of the same state if they are disputing ownership of land given by different states.
On the other hand, original jurisdiction refers to the power of the Supreme Court to hear cases originally commenced before it. Under Art III it can hear cases affecting ambassadors and other foreign officials, and in cases in which a state is a party in the exercise of its original jurisdiction.
IV. Two Roles of the Supreme Court
A.1 Duty as Interpreter of the United States Constitution
The United States Constitution is the supreme and paramount law of our country. Its provisions are mostly couched in general terms. It contains guiding principles and policies which were never intended by the framers of our constitution to serve as a solution to the every day problems of the common man. Since its provisions are expressed in general terms questions arise on its proper interpretation. Under the principle of the Separation of Power which is firmly entrenched in the United States Constitution, the United States Supreme Court as the highest court of the land has the power to interpret the provisions of the Constitution.
It must be stressed that the Supreme Court is not the exclusive interpreter of the Constitution. Everybody may interpret the provisions of the Constitution. However it is the Supreme Court which is the final arbiter on the matters involving the interpretation of the Constitution. This is not only a power but also a serious responsibility of the Supreme Courts but also the lower courts.
A.2 Principle of Separation of Power
The basis of the power and duty of the Supreme Court and the lower court to interpret the constitution is the principle of Separation of Power. The United States Constitution has provided for the division of the three main powers of government. The power to execute and enforce the law was assigned to the Executive. The power to make, amend and repeal the laws was assigned to the Legislative. The Judiciary has power to interpret the law. This principle ensures that there will be a learned group of people who shall devote their time only to the main responsibility of ascertaining the intent of the framers of the constitution.
This power is also established under Art III Section 2 of the Constitution which clearly provides for the extent of the power of the Judiciary.
A.3 Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 113 (1973)
Jane Roe, a single pregnant woman filed a suit against the District Attorney of the county. She sought a declaratory judgment against a Texas Statute which make it a crime to procure an abortion or to attempt on abortion except with respect to an abortion procured or attempted by medical advice for th7e purpose of saving the life of the mother.
The Supreme Court in this case declared this portion of the statute unconstitutional. Although the Constitution does not explicitly mention any right of privacy, the Supreme Court has in a number of cases recognized that a right of personal privacy, or a guarantee of certain areas or zones of privacy, exists under the Constitution. The right to privacy which is founded on the Fourteenth Amendment is broad enough to include a woman’s decision whether or not to have an abortion.
B. Duty as Policy Maker
In the past years, the role of the Supreme Court in a democratic government has greatly expanded. The United States Supreme Court has not only given breath and life to the wordings of the constitution by ascertaining the intent of the framers of the constitution. It has in the past years actively participated in the protection of constitutional rights and liberties of the people. Thus, the Supreme Court’s role has evolved to become the guardian of the people’s Bill of Rights. These policies include expanding the meaning of the Bill of rights for the protection of the citizens of the United States and the non-citizens as well.
It may be argued that policy making was not expressly granted by the constitution to the Judiciary. However, it can also be argued that this power is already inherent in the very concept of the Separation of Power and the principle of Checks and Balances. If the constitution has delegated the power to interpret the law to the Judiciary then it follows that the Judiciary was also given the power to declare any act of the President or the Legislature unconstitutional. If the constitution has empowered the Judiciary to check any abuses and errors that the other two branches may have committed then it could be inferred that they also have the power to render invalid any act of these two branches. Otherwise, the power delegated to it by the constitution would be an exercise of futility.
It must be stressed however that it is erroneous to conclude that the power to review acts of the other two branches of government was only established after the United States Constitution had been adopted. Research shows that the state courts and the Supreme Court have been engaged in judicial review prior to the adoption of the constitution with the common law principles as its basis. According to Douglas E. Edlin, the first case in which a state court ruled that a legislation that goes against the common law principles was void is the case of Ham v. M’Claws (1 Bay 93 ) which declared that:
“It was, therefore, the duty of the court, in such case, to square its decision with the rules of common fight and justice. For there were certain fixed and established rules, founded on the reason and fitness of things, which were paramount to all statutes; and if laws are made against those principles, they are null and void. For instance, statutes made against common right and reason, are void. 8 [Co.] Rep. 118 … It is clear, that statutes passed against the plain and obvious principles of common right, and common reason, are absolutely null and void, as far as they are calculated to operate against those principles.”(p.4)