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A court in transition: with the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor's pending retirement, the Supreme Court is about to enter a new era.




The Supreme Court can and does affect young people. Two examples: Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, outlawing public-school. segregation; and the 1984 case, Grove City College v. Bell, upholding the constitutionality of Title IX, the law that prohibits gender-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.


* Remind students that Justices may serve for life. Supporters of this system say it insulates Justices from political pressures because no one can remove them from their jobs in retaliation for their rulings. Opponents say Justices can be out of step with the times after 30 or more years on the bench, long after the President who appointed them is gone.

* Ask students to argue either side.


* Ask students to pretend they are U.S. Senators sitting on the Judiciary Committee, which questions nominees and votes on them before the full Senate considers the nomination.

* Assign students to write five questions they would ask the nominee. Have them explain why they asked these questions.


* Political scientists and others who study the Supreme Court say Justices sometimes make decisions that seem out of step with their basic conservative or liberal leanings. Sandra Day O'Connor is one example. Former Chief Justice Earl Warren was another. What might account for this?

* (Experts say that once judges become Justices of the Supreme Court, they often take a broader perspective of key constitutional issues than they did before joining the Court.)


* The Chief Justice's title is Chief Justice of the United States, not of the Supreme Court.

* A 1789 Act of Congress required Supreme Court Justices to preside twice a year over circuit courts scattered throughout the country. At the time, this meant long trips in rickety stagecoaches over bumpy roads. Often, Justices arrived at their destinations too late or too sick to conduct a session. The long rides were not abandoned until 1891.

WEB WATCH court.html. This U.S. government site provides links to other sites with Court facts and historical information.

By the first week of October, Sandra Day O'Connor had hoped to be enjoying her retirement, spending more time with her husband at their homes in Washington and Phoenix. And John G. Roberts Jr. had hoped to have replaced O'Connor as an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court, after his nomination by President Bush in July.

All that changed when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist died on September 3 at the age of 80 and Bush nominated Roberts to fill Rehnquist's seat on the Court instead.

For O'Connor, who had promised to stay on the bench until her successor was confirmed by the Senate, the switch meant she would likely remain in robes for part of the Court's 2005-06 term, scheduled to begin October 3, as Bush began the process of picking another nominee for her seat.

For Roberts, 50, it meant the chance to become the 17th Chief Justice since the Court's founding in 1789 (and the youngest since John Adams appointed 45-year-old John Marshall in 1800). Roberts, who was a federal Appeals Court judge in Washington at the time of his nomination, had worked as a law clerk for Rehnquist in 1980 and 1981, when Rehnquist was an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. (Rehnquist became Chief Justice in 1986.)

It was fitting, Bush said in September after announcing Roberts's nomination, that Chief Justice Rehnquist "be followed in office by a person who shared his deep reverence for the Constitution, his profound respect for the Supreme Court, and his complete devotion to the cause of justice."


Assuming Roberts becomes Chief Justice--and after Senate confirmation hearings in September, that seemed likely--he would be in a position to play a pivotal role for decades in shaping the Supreme Court's rulings. While the Chief Justice counts for only one vote on the nine-member Court, his influence can be far greater, as a result of his many behind-the-scenes roles, which include running the Justices' conference, the closed-door sessions that only the Justices attend, during which they decide which cases the Court will hear. On rulings in which he's in the majority, the Chief Justice also assigns a Justice to write the majority opinion.

Some of the Chief Justice's duties have evolved. The Constitution itself did not establish the office except by implication: A "Chief Justice" is mentioned only in Article 1, in connection with presiding over impeachment trials conducted by the Senate.

The Chief Justice presides over a corps of some 2,000 federal judges, and over the judicial branch, which includes a staff of 30,000. The Chief Justice also picks the members of important policy-making judicial committees and of specialized courts, including a court that issues special national security surveillance warrants allowing law enforcement to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects.

But modern Chief Justices often are remembered most for the landmark decisions that occur on their watch and for the judicial temperament they foster on the Court, whether liberal or conservative. The "Warren Court," for example, under Chief Justice Earl Warren (1953-69), is remembered as a court that helped nudge the country in a more liberal direction. Its most famous decision was Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, outlawing segregation in public schools.

Rehnquist presided over a conservative shift in the Court, which has placed a greater emphasis on federalism--the idea that significant power should rest with the states, as opposed to the federal government--and supported a greater role for religion in public life. (Rehnquist also will be remembered for presiding over the Senate's impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton in 1999.)


Most observers believe Roberts will follow Chief Justice Rehnquist's conservative approach to the law. But Roberts was an Appeals Court judge for only two years and does not have a long record of written opinions, so his judicial views are not well known. During his confirmation hearings, he repeatedly declined requests from Democratic Senators to discuss his current views of abortion, civil rights, and other hot-button topics that are likely to come before the Court. "I feel the need to stay away from a discussion of specific cases," Roberts told Senators.

President Bush will likely face much tougher scrutiny from Democrats for his choice to succeed O'Connor, the first female Justice (appointed in 1981 by President Ronald Reagan) and a moderate swing vote on many issues. If a more conservative Justice were to replace her, it could tip the balance on a closely divided Court for years to come.

With reporting by Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times.



1. News that the Supreme Court was about to change first came with the announced retirement of Justice

a David H. Souter.

b Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

c Sandra Day O'Connor.

d Anthony M. Kennedy.

2. One Chief Justice and eight -- -- Justices serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

3. John G. Roberts had a special relationship with the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist; Roberts

a was his student in law school.

b was a member of Rehnquist's law firm.

c served with Rehnquist in the administration of President Jimmy Carter.

d once served as a law clerk for Rehnquist.

4. The Court was founded in --, two years after the Constitution was ratified.

5. One of the duties of the Chief Justice is to

a name judges to fill vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court.

b choose members of a special court that helps investigate terrorist suspects.

c decide whether the Court will be liberal or conservative.

d cast the deciding vote in landmark cases.

6. The current Court favors federalism, the idea that

a federal law is the supreme law of the land.

b Congress is superior to state legislatures.

c substantial power should reside with states.

d federal workers are entitled to life tenure.

7. Roberts does not have

a much experience working for the federal government.

b a known conservative or liberal inclination.

c an opinion on social issues.

d a long record of written opinions.


1. The Constitution says that while Presidents may nominate judges to serve on federal courts, the Senate, in its "advise and consent" role can vote to confirm or not confirm the President's nominee. Some people say Presidents should be given more freedom to choose federal judges. Explain why you agree or disagree.

2. Judge Roberts has refused to answer questions about his opinion on abortion and other hot-button social issues that are likely to be brought before the Court. Should judicial nominees be required to answer such questions. Why or why not?

1. [c] Sandra Day O'Connor.

2. associate

3. [d] once served as a law clerk for Rehnquist.

4. 1789

5. [b] choose members of a special court that helps investigate terrorist suspects.

6. [c] substantial power should reside with states.

7. [d] a long record of written opinions.
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Article Details
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Author:Zack, Ian
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 10, 2005
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