The Supreme Court and Constitutional Interpretation Shan Sivalingam UW Law School – Street Law May 2007
The Constitution • The first three Articles of the Constitution lay out the three co-equal branches of the United States government. • Article I – the Congress • Writes the laws • Article II – the President • Enforces the laws • Article III – the Supreme Court • Interprets the laws
The Judicial Branch • Article III of the Constitution • “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.”
Appeals to the Supreme Court U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court has complete discretion over whether to allow a party that loses at the Court of Appeals to have an additional appeal U.S.S.C. may review a state appellate court’s interpretation of federal law. 12 Regional U.S. Courts of Appeals (1st – 11th and District of Columbia Circuits) (Washington State is located in the Ninth Circuit) State Appellate Court Losing party (except the Government in criminal prosecutions) automatically gets to appeal to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Circuit in which the District Court is located. 94 Federal District Courts (Seattle is located in the Western District of Washington) State Trial Court
The Supreme Court • Marbury v. Madison (1803 Supreme Court opinion by Chief Justice John Marshall) • “[It] is emphatically the province of the judicial department to say what the law is.” • As a result, Supreme Court gets the final say on what the Constitution and federal laws mean.
The Supreme Court Front Row (L to R): Anthony Kennedy, John Paul Stevens, Chief Justice John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, David Souter; Back Row: Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito
The Supreme Court • 9 justices hold office for life • Nominated by the President • Confirmed by the Senate • A majority (usually 5 justices) needed to prevail • The Court is bound by the Constitution and its own past decisions (called “precedent”) on Constitutional issues when it decides new cases.
The Conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts; Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito The text of the Constitution and federal laws means exactly what it says. If the text is clear, there is no need to look to legislative intent. The Constitution creates a federal government of limited powers. So all powers not expressly granted to the federal government can only be exercised by the states.
The Liberals Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer Sometimes, you have to look beyond the text of the Constitution or federal laws to legislative history, congressional committee reports, and public policy to decide what the text means, especially in the context of individual rights. Although the Constitution gives the federal government a fixed set of enumerated powers, the federal government has broad authority to regulate matters which the conservatives believe are reserved for the states to regulate.
The Swing Vote Justice Anthony Kennedy Approach every case pragmatically. Sometimes, the text will be clear. Sometimes you will have to look beyond the text to other sources. Decide on a case-by-case basis. The federal government is a government of enumerated powers and the states have all powers that the Constitution does not specifically assign to the federal government.