In a federal government system driven by both the states rights and the federal rights, it’s unclear where each specific government entity stands on any given issue. Anything from, gun control to abortion rights to marijuana, has each state having a different stance. That is why the decisions made by the federal government, and especially the Supreme Court, are crucial for the country as a whole. The court system in the United States functions through jurisdiction and levels. There are both state courts and federal courts, which is where jurisdiction comes in. So something can be a question for state court or federal court depending on the facts surrounding the case. Within each of those systems there are trial courts, appellate courts, and a supreme court. Furthermore, the decisions made in the higher courts must stand for the lower courts in that jurisdiction. Because the United States has one Supreme Court, the decisions affect all of the courts in the country. Lastly, because of the multitude of cases that are appealed to the Supreme Court every session, the court only tries a few incredibly controversial cases every year. The court has nine justices who, in theory, are politically neutral; however, they generally lean either conservatively or liberally in their ideals and subsequently in their decisions. This adds a layer in dissecting their importance in American politics. Under Article Two of the United States Constitution, the President has the power to nominate Supreme Court justices; after a Senate confirmation, the justice can be formally appointed to serve on the Supreme Court bench. That is why in a presidential race, when there’s a chance that a Supreme Court judge will step down or pass away, the new president would be given the honor of appointing a new justice is so contentious. The 2016 presidential race in particular had the potential of the next president appointing up to four new justices. In February 2016, Justice Scalia passed away and Congress was unable to fill his position in a timely manner for a variety of political reasons. In addition, some of the other judges are extremely old. If Justice Anthony Kennedy, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Justice Stephen Breyer –who are all in their 70s and 80s – decide to retire or end up passing away, that would mean that the 45th President of the United States will have the power to change the discourse and potentially the ideological balance of the court, thus influencing policies and laws for many years to come. Despite her age and run-ins with cancer in the past , Justice Ginsburg seems to have no intention of leaving. In an interview she [Johnson] did at the Sundance Film Festival in January said “As long as I can do the job full steam, I will be here.” Her tenacity and progressive nature has gained her somewhat of celebrity status in the past years with the general public and it seems the prospect of her retiring during the Trump administration is extremely bleak.
In addition to age and political leanings of the justices, on average, the justice system moves very slowly because there are a lot of steps involved in every case; the attention to detail is essential and the system is not meant to be rushed. Everyone needs to have time to create complains, discover evidence, and then plead their case and those steps are repeated in each court until they reach the Supreme Court. Furthermore, it takes approximately five to ten years for an issue to reach the Supreme Court that is brewing in the public sphere because issues need to have specific facts that create a case and the Supreme Court has to grant that it will read the complaint. Once the court grants a decision and creates an opinion, the decision of the court can be written down and published. It enacts case law that can take another five or so years for the legislature to overturn it if it so chooses to. Meaning, that a relatively young judge in their 50s creating opinions and implementing case law could be influencing policy decisions for the next 30 plus years while in office and long after retirement.
When justice Antonin Scalia passed away at the end of the Obama administration, the nation was shocked. He was a well-respected conservative originalist; meaning he interpreted the constitution exactly how the founding fathers wrote it instead of seeing it being a living document. Furthermore, for the majority of the time his decisions were conservative in nature. Judge Scalia was a pillar of the Republican Party. With his passing in 2016, it meant that President Obama, a liberal and democratic, president, would be appointing the new judge. Republicans, knowing that the Obama administration would not pass the opportunity of appointing a more liberal judge, decided to collectively support a stalemate for any judge appointed by the Obama administration. President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill Scalia’s seat but the Senate refused to vote him in. His nomination expired January of 2017 with the end of the 114 congress. Republican leaders argued that it’s up to the next President to appoint the next justice; they referred to the President's’ low approval rating at the end of the term, as well as his extensive use of executive power in the form of executive orders as a reason to not approve his nominee. While there was no guarantee that a Republican candidate would win in the 2016 Presidential election, it was better for the Republican party to prolong the process and give the party a better chance of putting a conservative justice in to replace Scalia.
When President Trump took office, one of this first actions as the chief executive was nominating Neil Gorsuch to take Justice Scalia’s seat. The Republican majority, pleased with the republican in office and satisfied with the nomination, voted him in with relative ease. Gorsuch was the candidate that made sense in replacing Scalia; his values aligned very closely to those of Scalia, both are originalists and conservative in nature. With Gorsuch on the bench, the court decisions will remain fairly similar which is understandably what the Republican Party wanted (Ponnuru). Only time will tell if President Trump is able to nominate and appoint other justices to the court. Whether it ends up being his honor or the honor of the 46th president of the United States, it is apparent that the discourse of the Supreme Court, as well as the laws and culture that it influences, are going to be rapidly changing in the next few years and we as the public are waiting with bated breath and must recognize its importance in our politics as a country.
Johnson, Carrie. Ginsburg’s Illness Puts Focus on the Choices Ahead for Obama. 7 Feb. 2009. www.washingtonpost.com, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/06/AR2009020603726.html.
Lang, Brent. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg Shares Her #MeToo Moment at Sundance.” Variety, 21 Jan. 2018, http://variety.com/2018/film/markets-festivals/ruth-bader-ginsburg-metoo-snl-supreme-court-retirement-1202671623/.
Obama, Barack. “Remarks by the President on the Passing of the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.” Whitehouse.gov, 13 Feb. 2016, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/13/remarks-president-passing-us-supreme-court-justice-antonin-scalia.
Ponnuru, Ramesh. Neil Gorsuch & Supreme Court --Antonin Scalia’s Textualist & Originalist | National Review. Accessed 24 Feb. 2018. https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/01/neil-gorsuch-antonin-scalia-supreme-court-textualist-originalist-heir/.