Powers of the Supreme Court
Ever since the Marbury v. Madison case (1803), it has been understood that the Supreme Court has the power to decide whether laws passed by Congress are constitutional. In other words, it has the authority to definitively interpret the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. According to many scholars, however, this authority is not final or absolute. In his book The Supreme Court and Constitutional Democracy (1984), John Agresto argues that in our system of checks and balances, there simply is no final, absolute "supreme" authority. Instead, the three branches of government continually vie against one another, each asserting what they believe to be their proper powers, and appealing to broad public support. It is in the very nature of our republican of government, upholding the rights of minority dissenters, that some issues are never resolved once and for all.
Controversies over the proper role of the Supreme Court in our society are perfectly natural, and will never be fully resolved. Ironically, many modern liberals who look to the High Court as the the champion of progressive social reforms seem to have forgotten that this same institution has actually hindered social legislation during most of its history, and in any case, of the three branches it is the least susceptible to democratic influence. The fact that the Supreme Court has become so powerful explains why the arguments over nominees have become so heated and melodramatic in recent decades. (Excerpted from a paper written in a graduate seminar under Prof. Martha Derthick at the University of Virginia, 1991.)
Ideological history of the Supreme Court
For much of the nation's history until the 1940s, the Supreme Court was a conservative institution, refraining from making rulings that might upset the social-political order. After the showdown with President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938, however, the Court gradually became more liberal, and was decidedly on the left side of the political spectrum from the 1950s through the 1970s. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 brought about a rightward shift, though some of his appointees (and those of his successor, George H.W. Bush) turned out to be liberals as well. For nearly two decades, from 1992 until 2008 there was a slight conservative slant on the Supreme Court, after which the liberals regained rough parity.
Confirmation battles in the U.S. Senate
Over the course of U.S. history, twelve presidential nominees to the Supreme Court have been rejected by the U.S. Senate, mostly in the 19th Century. Two of President Nixon's nominees were rejected (Clement Haynsworth and Harrold Carswell), and one of President Reagan's nominees was rejected (Robert Bork, in 1987). During the administration of George W. Bush, Democratic opposition to judicial nominations was so strong that vacancies caused widespread delays in court proceedings. In response, the Republicans threatened to invoke the "nuclear option," voiding the process of filibuster by which minority rights are protected in the Senate. In the end, however, a compromise was reached to avoid such a drastic step.
(ranked by seniority, after the Chief Justice)
- Chief Justice: John Roberts (2005)
- Anthony Kennedy (1988)
- Clarence Thomas (1991)
- Ruth Bader Ginsberg (1994)
- Stephen Breyer (1995)
- Samuel Alito (2006)
- Sonia Sotomayor (2009)
- Elena Kagan (2010)
NOTE: Associated Justice Antonin Scalia, who began serving on the Supreme Court in 1986, passed away on February 13, 2016, leaving a vacancy. There is currently a sharp dispute over whether President Obama should nominate a successor this year, or let the next president do so.