After the creation and ratification of the United States Constitution, the Supreme Court, the highest Federal court in the country, was created. The Constitution required that at least one court (the Supreme Court) be created, but gave Congress the power to create other, lower federal courts. It has original jurisdiction over cases regarding ambassadors, ministers and consuls and where at least one party is a State, while it holds appellate jurisdiction over all other cases. Thus, it can have the final say in a great many cases.
Since the Framers of the Constitution wanted to maintain separation of powers, the Supreme Court has certain checks and balances against Congress and the executive branch as well as held against it. The other branches check the court in that justices are nominated by the President and are approved by majority vote by the Senate. Once chosen however, justices remain on the Supreme Court until retirement, resignation, impeachment, or death, freeing them of pressure to bend to popular desires. The Supreme Court can check the other branches with the power of judicial review. This allows it to judge whether or not an act of Congress or the executive branch is unconstitutional. The ruling of Marbury v. Madison cemented this power, as it was the first case to rule something “unconstitutional.”
The Supreme Court’s powers have made it important in interpreting the Constitution and determining policy. In the history of the United States, there have been two main views on how the Constitution should be interpreted: strict constructionalism and judicial activism. Strict constructionalism, stipulates that the Constitution reserves all the powers not specifically given to the federal government to the states, as stated in the Tenth Amendment. Judicial activism on the other hand believes that the federal government can and should exercise more power through the “necessary and proper” clause. Early on in the Supreme Court’s history, John Marshall, a strong supporter of the latter interpretation, influenced rulings to favor the national government. In McCulloch v. Maryland, the court ruled that the national government had the necessary implied powers to run the first national bank and that the state law taxing it was unconstitutional. The court later ruled in Gibbons v. Ogden that the national government had the power to regulate interstate commerce. Though Marshall did not take part in the decision for Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, the ruling for this case held that because the issue in question related to federal law, the Supreme Court would have authority over the state court. This, along with the outcome of the Civil War, allowed the federal government to become dominant over state governments.
Other than being a key authority in interpreting the Constitution, the Supreme Court has played an important role in interpreting the bounds of rights and privileges of individuals and institutions. In 1969, court held in Tinker v. Des Moines that students have a right to freedom of speech when two students were suspended for refusing to take off their black armbands, symbols of protest against the Vietnam War. On the other hand, the court defended a high school principle’s decision to pull two articles from the school paper in its ruling of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. It ruled that schools could restrict speech if they interfered with “legitimate pedagogical goals.” When President Nixon refused to produce, in full, the taped conversations he recorded from the Oval Office, the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had overextended his powers and privileges as president. Note that the Supreme Court can reverse previous interpretations of the Constitution. For Plessy v. Ferguson, it ruled that segregation in schools was acceptable, so long as the institutions were “separate, but equal.” Later on, in the case Brown v. Board of Education, the ruling was reversed on the grounds that separate schools could never be equal.
The United States Supreme Court has greatly influenced the laws of its nation. There is little doubt that, as time progresses, that it will be an asset as the world rides into the Information Age and society slowly changes.