Rząd i społeczeństwo USA
Legitimacy of the judicial branch: lesson overview
Learn how precedents and stare decisis play an important role in judicial decision making. Nevertheless, ideological changes in the composition of the Supreme Court due to presidential appointments have led to the Court's establishing new or rejecting existing precedents.
Precedents and stare decisis play an important role in judicial decision making. Nevertheless, ideological changes in the composition of the Supreme Court due to presidential appointments have led to the Court's establishing new or rejecting existing precedents.
|judicial appointment||The President of the United States appoints Supreme Court justices and federal judges. Presidents attempt to use the judicial appointment process to influence the ideology of the Court for years to come.|
|confirmation process||The Senate must confirm nominees to the Supreme Court and the federal bench by a simple majority. When the Senate majority party opposes the president, there’s a greater likelihood that judicial appointments will be blocked or rejected.|
|life tenure||Supreme Court justices and federal judges have lifetime appointments, remaining in office until they retire, die, or (in rare cases) are removed by impeachment.|
|precedent||A legal decision that establishes a rule for similar cases going forward.|
|stare decisis||The principle of making legal decisions based on past precedents. From the Latin for “let the decision stand.”|
Should the Supreme Court make the rules, or just play by them?
At his nomination hearing, the current Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, explained his idea of the proper role of the judicial branch: “Judges are like umpires,” he said. “Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them . . . Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire.”
In many ways, this is true: the Supreme Court can only judge the merits of the cases that come before it. Unlike the legislative branch, the judicial branch can’t make law; it can only interpret the constitutionality of existing laws.
When examining a new case, the Supreme Court follows the practice of stare decisis, which means consulting precedent to determine whether the ruling in a previous case ought to apply to the current one. Stare decisis is Latin for “let the decision stand,” meaning that if a previous decision solved a matter similar to the one at stake in the current case, the Court is likely to render a similar verdict.
But as any baseball fan can tell you, even umpires have a considerable amount of leeway when it comes to calling balls and strikes. It’s rare that a current case is identical in every way to a previous one—and since the Supreme Court only has time to hear a fraction of the cases put before it, it’s more likely to take on cases that present constitutional dilemmas than ones that are easy to call.
Today, the Court is more willing to overturn its precedents than ever before; in fact, since the 1950s, the Court has overturned twice as many precedents than it did in the more than 150 previous years of its existence.
Ideological changes in the composition of the Court, caused by presidents appointing justices sympathetic to their views, account for these shifts of opinion.
One of the most famous shifts in the ideology of the Supreme Court occurred in the 1950s, when the Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional. This effectively overturned the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which permitted racial segregation. What accounts for this change in the Court’s decision making?
Legend has it that when someone asked Dwight Eisenhower if he had made any mistakes as president, he answered, “Yes, two. And they are both sitting on the Supreme Court.” If presidents appoint justices who share their ideological leanings to the Supreme Court, how is it possible for a president to make a “mistake”?
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