By Austin Mahle ‘19
William Howard Taft, former President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court once said “Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court goes on forever”. A significant concept even in today’s political and legal climate, many people fail to acknowledge the leviathan power the Court holds over the citizens’ lives. How can the fate of our nation be determined by nine people? Ranging from gun laws to marriage to abortion, the Supreme Court has no officially defined parameters to rule, therefore it rules on all cases. Recently, the Supreme Court went through one of its most highlighted and controversial episodes in U.S. history after the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, which brought to light the true precedence and power the Court holds.
Having the power of judicial review, the Court has exercised this power over many legal cases spanning our country’s 200 year history. In Dred Scot v Sanford (1854), the Court ruled that blacks were not American citizens after a slave fled to the Northern states and declared his freedom, and therefore not entitled to legal protection under the law. In Plessy v Ferguson (1896), the “separate but equal” doctrine was upheld in the Southern states, which was caused by a Louisiana law ordering separation of blacks and whites in public facilities, and kept in law for 58 years. Wickard v Filburn (1942) authorized that the federal government could regulate commerce inside a specific state, after a farmer was charged for violating the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 by growing more wheat than the regulated amount, even if the product had not even been sold to market. These few, among a myriad of cases, highlight the immensity and wide arching power of the Supreme Court; furthermore, even though social ideas and beliefs have changed, the Court has continued to grow in power, and with such a concentration of power in the hands of so few, any rational American should be concerned.
Throughout our nation’s history, the Supreme Court’s reach continued to grow; and its power has even touched us here at Ridley High School, specifically regarding free speech. In 1969, Tinker v Des Moines Independent Community School District, a historic case brought by students from Des Moines School District after they were suspended for wearing black armbands protesting the Vietnam War and supporting the “Christmas Truce”. The Court decided that students were entitled to First Amendment protections of free speech, and could not be denied to the students upon entering a school, with the majority writing “it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate”. However, this ruling was contradicted in later years by the same Court in Hazelwood v Kuhlmeier (1988), in which The Court decided that school administration officials had that authority to censor or deny publication of certain ideas pertaining to out of school events. Such an inherent contradiction: we have freedom of speech like other adults, yet a school can deny to publish certain articles at their discretion? What is to stop the court from revoking our privilege of free speech, or to grant further authority to schools in terms of speech? This change in mindset on the Court should bring the light to many Americans as to how much sway and influence this branch of government holds, and how the views of a simple majority of 5 people could change the landscape of our country in an instant.
Many a myth surround the Court when it comes to addressing the authority the Court has over Americans. A frequent rationalization of its power is that the Court is non-political, that the Justices on the Court are not influenced by politicians and make their decisions based on the law. How flagrantly false! So easily shown today, politics heavily influences the Supreme Court. Whenever a vacancy appears, the dominant party in Congress sings with glee by placing a person who will uphold their ideology and beliefs, often times in blatant violation of the Constitution, which lasts for generations to come, no matter the ideological side, since both parties violate the Constitution on a frequent basis.. Earl Warren, a former Chief Justice, was a candidate for President and Governor of California, however lost the nomination to Dwight Eisenhower; it is speculated that Eisenhower paid Warren with the appointment to the Court in exchange for his non opposition in the 1952 Republican Convention. This, and may other political exchanges nullify the myth of the Court’s omnipotence.
The current trend this country pushes itself towards is a dangerous precedent: a centralized government in the hands of an elite few, aided and abetted by a Supreme Court of untouchable judges with the fate of 320 million Americans in their hands. Their powers are borderline that of a Soviet politburo, layered under the guise of democracy and caring for the rights of individuals. In the past century, our rights have been trampled upon by a court of power hungry bureaucrats hidden in the shadows of Washington D.C. Tyranny is close at hand, and our Constitutional guardian against tyranny is slowly pushing it forward.