The Supreme Court’s Most Important Power is That of Judicial Review, the Authority to Interpret the Constitution

    In Brief:

  • The Supreme Court is often referred to as “The Highest Court In The Land”.

  • As the Judicial Branch, the Supreme Court is tasked with upholding the rights of all citizens under the Constitution.

  • The three branches of government act as a balance of power so that no one branch can be become tyrannical.

  • The Supreme Court holds the other two branches of government in check by utilizing the power of judicial review.

The word supreme expresses a certain finality – a superior authority over all others. As the highest court in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court acts as the final word over all matters that reach its hallowed grounds. As a faithful watchdog over the interpretation of the Constitution, Supreme court justices work to ensure that all Americans are privy to equal rights.

While there are many other supreme courts throughout the world that operate in a similar mold, the U.S. Supreme Court is distinct in its nature. As famed 19th century French scholar Alexis de Toqueville noted, “I am unaware that any nation of the globe has hitherto organized a judicial power in the same manner as the Americans. . .  more imposing judicial power was never constituted by any people.”

The Three Branches of Government:

Each of the three branches of government have their own functions and duties as outlined in the Constitution. It’s important to remember that the United States was founded in response to a system of government in the United Kingdom that many believed was tyrannical and in complete opposition to the “natural rights” outlined by the enlightenment thinkers of the 17th century. The balance of power between the three branches ensures that no one branch can ever usurp the others and become tyrannical.

Judicial Branch:

The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court and its nine justices. The nine justices of the supreme court are appointed to the position by the President and confirmed by the Senate to serve on the court. These justices only hear cases that pertain to issues that relate to the Constitution.

In past court cases like Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Board of Education where the plaintiffs believed their constitutional rights were violated, the cases ascended to the Supreme Court. The judicial system is also made up of lower courts that deal with federal issues as they appear in each state.

Legislative Branch:

The Legislative Branch refers to Congress – a system of lawmakers that is divided on two parts, the Senate and the House of Representatives. At present, each state is allotted two senators for a total of 100. The number of representatives each state receives is determined by its population. Some states like Wyoming only have two representatives while California has 53. Representatives debate and draft bills that may one day become laws.

Executive Branch:

The President of the United States administers the Executive Branch. This branch is tasked with the enforcement of laws and the overall welfare of the nation. The president represents the nation in deliberations with other countries, leads the nation during times of war, suggests a national budget each year, and approves or vetoes bills when they come to his/her desk. Once the president approves a bill, it becomes law.

Why Aren’t Supreme Court Justices Subjected to Term Limits?

Under our current system, Supreme Court Justices are appointed for life. The average justice serves for around 20 to 30 years with the longest serving justice being William O. Douglas who served for 36. The founding fathers believed that a life term was ideal for the Supreme Court as a way to safeguard against political pressure.

If the Supreme Court were required to change each time a President left office, there would be extreme pressure to rule in favor of partisan positions. As such, the Supreme Court can act as a truly independent branch. A justice cannot be fired for having a differing ideology than the President that appointed them or for making unpopular decisions.

How Does the Supreme Court Decide on Matters of Constitutional Law?

From an outside perspective, the Supreme Court may possess a disproportionate amount of power relative to the other branches of government. What is there to prevent the Supreme Court from legalizing mandatory Sunday church service for all citizens, or dictating to Congress how much it can spend on the military? In order to keep from becoming a tyrannical branch, members of the Supreme Court must base their legal interpretations on the Constitution rather than their own beliefs. 

Some scholars believe that the Supreme Court must abide by a strict interpretation of the Constitution (originalists) while others believe it is important to have a fluid interpretation and look beyond the thinking of the founding fathers (interpretivists).

Originalists like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia believe that when one abides by a strict interpretation of the Constitution, a justice’s own beliefs and viewpoints cannot muddle the actual intent of the Constitution. When taking a more liberal viewpoint of the Constitution, Justice Scalia argued that political, economic, and philosophical beliefs can taint the interpretation of the Constitution. 

Interpretivists argue that we cannot comprehend exactly what the framers were thinking or the world they lived in. The interpretation of the Constitution must adapt to current societal norms. For example, the First Amendment only guarantees freedom of speech and press because, at the time it was written, the framers only had access to those two forms of communications. Where would invasive robocalls or pornography lie within that amendment?

Why Is The Supreme Court Allowed to Interpret the Constitution in the First Place?

According to 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.” Under this article, the Supreme is declared the highest court in the land or “supreme”,  but that still does not mean the Supreme Court has the authority to review constitutional law cases. This power comes from the most important facet of the Supreme Court… judicial review. 

In matters of judicial review, actions of the executive and legislative branches are subject to review. If the Supreme Court deems that certain laws or actions are unconstitutional, they are swiftly invalidated.  As such, judicial review is a very important countermeasure against the legislative and executive branches. Without judicial review, the legislative branch would have no restriction on the laws it writes and the executive branch could dictate blatantly illegal executive orders without the fear of retribution. 

The power of judicial review was established in the landmark decision of Marbury v. Madison, the first Supreme Court decision to rule an act of Congress as unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Marshall explained his ruling at the time, “It is emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must, of necessity, expound and interpret the rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the Court must decide on the operation of each.”

Now You Know Why The Supreme Court is So Important

Simply put, constitutional law is the cornerstone on which the U.S. was founded and the Supreme Court is its constant guardian. The rights and privileges that free citizens enjoy are due in totality to the Constitution. The Supreme Court works to guarantee that Americans of all races, creed, and religion have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.