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The Supreme Court.

"The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish."

--Article III, Section I, the U.S. Constitution

As the nation's highest court, the Supreme Court decides cases that affect almost every aspect of American life--from civil rights and college admissions policies to the electoral process and the environment. The Court determines whether laws, the actions of public officials, and lower-court rulings are legal according to the Constitution. Its rulings serve as precedents, or legal guidelines, for federal, state, and local governments.

As head of the judiciary branch, the Court also defines the powers of the legislative (Congress) and executive (President) branches. The President, in turn, appoints the Court's nine Justices (judges), who are then confirmed by the Senate.

The Court in Action

The Supreme Court hears only a small fraction--about 150--of the 7,000 cases submitted to it each year. Most legal disputes arrive at the Court via a written request for certiorari (SER-shee-uhRAR-ee), or the right to explain why the Supreme Court should review the case.

It was such a process that helped elect a U.S. President. In December 2000, then-Republican candidate George W. Bush appealed to the Supreme Court to review a Florida court's order for a statewide ballot recount. The Court ruled against the recount. As a result, Governor Bush gained the state's 25 electoral votes and clinched the election.

Most Supreme Court cases are appeals of lower-court rulings. This process is known as appellate jurisdiction. The Court also has the authority, or original jurisdiction, to hear cases involving legal disputes between a state and the federal government.

Law of the Land

The Court's role has changed over time. Early in its history, it focused chiefly on the division of authority between state and federal governments. Since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Court has turned much of its attention to the protection of individual rights and liberties.

In recent years, many cases before the Court have been decided by a 5-4 vote. Legal experts say this lack of agreement reflects the increasingly polarized (opposing) views of the American people. How does the Supreme Court affect your life? Read the following cases and find out.


The Pledge of Allegiance

CASE 1: Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow

Michael Newdow has sued a California school district where his 9-year-old daughter attended school. He argues that the district violated his daughter's religious freedom by forcing her to hear the phrase "under God" during the Pledge of Allegiance. He says the Pledge should be banned from public schools because the phrase "under God" is a form of prayer, and thus a violation of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear this case during its current term.


Newdow argues that the Constitution prohibits the government from supporting any religion in public schools and elsewhere. This interpretation of the First Amendment has been used in previous cases where the courts have barred school-led prayer in classrooms, on playing fields, and at ceremonies.

The U.S. government and many school districts argue that "under God" is more about ceremony, much like the phrase "In God We Trust" that is printed on the national currency. U.S. lawyers argue that it is "far-fetched" to interpret such ceremonial references as official U.S. policy.


Should the phrase "under God" be included in the Pledge of Allegiance? Or does the phrase violate the constitutional guarantees separating church and state?

Separate, But Equal?

CASE 2: Plessy v. Ferguson

On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a man of Caucasian and African-American heritage, was arrested for sitting in the "White" car of the East Louisiana Railroad. According to Louisiana's Separate Car Act, all railway cars carrying passengers in Louisiana were to provide "equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races."

Plessy challenged the law as a violation of the Constitution. Segregation laws provided equal, but inferior facilities for blacks. John H. Ferguson, a judge, upheld Louisiana's law and found Plessy guilty. Plessy ultimately appealed the decision to the Supreme Court in 1896.


Plessy argued that the Separate Car Act violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids states from denying equal tights to any person. Because he was denied his rightful seat in the "White" car, Plessy said the Louisiana law destroyed the legal equality of all people.

Lawyers seeking to uphold Ferguson's decision argued that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed political equality but not social equality for the races. In providing equal seating for both races, the Separate Car Act did not deny anyone accommodations.


Did Plessy have a right to sit in the "White" car? Did Louisiana's Separate Car Act conflict with the Constitution, despite providing "equal but separate accommodations"? Your Teacher's Edition tells how the Supreme Court ruled.

Words to Know

* precedent: An act or decision that can later be used to justify a similar case.

* appellate: The power to hear appeals and review lower-court decisions.

* jurisdiction: Area over which a person or group has legal authority.



Students should understand

* How the Supreme Court functions as the interpreter of the U.S. Constitution.


Ask students to share what they know about the Supreme Court.


The Supreme Court upheld Louisiana's segregation laws in the Plessy v. Ferguson case by a 7-1 vote. The Court ruled that separate and equal accommodations for whites and blacks did not define any race as inferior. This ruling was overturned by the Court in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who represented the Browns and other families, argued that the "separate but equal" rule harms minority students by making them feel inferior and thus interfering with their ability to learn. The Court agreed with Marshall and ruled unanimously that segregation violated the 14th Amendment, which requires that all citizens be treated equally.


MAKING CONNECTIONS: How do Supreme Court rulings affect all Americans? (The Court defends the rights of all Americans according to the Constitution. As the nation's highest judicial body, its rulings serve as precedents for federal, state, and local governments.)

MAKING INFERENCES: How do 5-4 voting margins in Supreme Court decisions reflect popular opinion in the U.S.? (Experts say that close margins in the Supreme Court's rulings show an American public in sharp disagreement regarding certain political and social issues.)


THE PRESIDENT AND JUSTICES: Have students write a paper analyzing the political goals a President might pursue when appointing a Justice to the Supreme Court. How can a new appointee affect the philosophy of the Court?



* Power, authority, and governance: How the Supreme Court serves as the third branch of the U.S. government.

* Individuals, groups, and institutions: How the Supreme Court ensures the rights of the American people.



* Patrick, John J., The Supreme Court of the United States: A Student Companion (Oxford University Press, 2002). Grade 8.

* LeVert, Suzanne, Supreme Court (Benchmark, 2002). Grades 6-8.


* Supreme Court of the United States

* Historic Supreme Court Decisions
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Article Details
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Author:Landauro, Victor
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 5, 2004
Previous Article:He had a dream: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to ensuring that his own children--and children everywhere--could one day play, work,...
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