Chapter 12—Supreme Court Decision Making I. The Supreme Court at Work Since 1979, the Court has been in continuous session throughout the year, taking periodic recesses, rather than the traditional 9 months. A. The Court’s Procedures 1. The Court sits for 2 weeks each month a. hear arguments from lawyers on cases before them from Monday-Wednesday. b. On Wednesday & Friday the justices meet in secret conferences to decide cases. 2. After the 2 week sitting, the Court recesses. The justices work oh: a. paperwork b. consider arguments they have heard c. study petitions from plaintiffs who want the Court to hear their cases d. work on opinions—written statements on cases they have already decided & set out general principles that apply to everyone as well as to the parties in the case. B. Getting the Cases to the Court 1. Writ of certiorari—order to a lower court to send the records on a case for a review a. main route to the Supreme Court b. 90% of the requests for certiorari are rejected—decision of the lower court stands 2. Reach the court on appeal from lower federal or state courts a. if dismissed by the Supreme Court—decision of the lower court becomes final 3. Case involves the federal government, the solicitor general is appointed by the president to represent the government. a. Solicitor general—serves as a link between the executive & judicial branches b. Solicitor general plays a key role in setting the Court’s agenda by determining whether the federal government should appeal a case to the Supreme Court. 4. Supreme Court justices or their clerks identify important cases & the chief justice puts them on the “discuss list” 5. on Friday, chief justice reviews the “discuss list” & the other justices give their views. a. Need 4 of the 9 justices to accept a case 6. Once accepted the justices have to decide whether to ask for more information or to rule quickly on the basis of written materials they already have a. If the Court rules without new information—ruling is announced with a per curiam opinion—unsigned statement of a Supreme Court decision C. Steps in Deciding Major Cases The Supreme Court follows these steps in hearing important cases: 1. Submitting Briefs a. Lawyers on each side present written statement setting forth the legal arguments, relevant facts, & precedents supporting one side of a case. b. Amicus Curiae briefs—“friend of the Court”—written statement from an individual or group claiming to have information useful to a court’s consideration of a case. (Interest groups) 2. Oral Arguments a. Lawyer for each side present an oral argument before the court. b. Justices often challenge a statement or ask for further information during a lawyer’s argument 3. The Conference a. On Wednesdays & Fridays the justices meet in secret conferences to discuss the cases they have heard. b. Each decision gets 30 minutes of discussion c. Justices vote—need 6 Justices present to make a decision 1. Majority vote is needed to decide a case (5 if all are present) 2. If a tie occurs, the lower court decision is left standing. 4. Writing the Opinion—states the facts, announces the Court’s ruling, & explains its reasoning in reaching the decision. a. Unanimous Opinion—all justices vote the same. b. Majority Opinion—expresses the views of the majority of the justices on a case c. Concurring Opinion—written by justices who agree with the majority’s conclusions about a case, but do so for different reasons. d. Dissenting Opinion—opinion of the justices on the losing side in a case If chief justice agrees with the majority, he/she assigns someone in the majority to write the opinion. When Chief Justice is in the minority, the most senior associate justice among the majority assigns one of the justices on that side of the case to write the majority opinion. When the justices do not accept the first draft of a majority opinion, a bargaining process begins—(May take weeks or months) Finally the case is settled & the decision is announced. II. Shaping Public policy A. Tools for Shaping Policy 1. The Supreme Court determines policy in the following ways: a. Judicial Review—Marbury v. Madison (1803)—established Court’s power to examine laws & actions of local, state, & national governments & to cancel them if they violate the Constitution 2. Interpretation of Laws Many major acts of Congress have come before the Court repeatedly for Interpretation: Ex: Interstate Commerce Act, Sherman Antitrust Act, National Labor Relations Act 3. Overturning Earlier Decisions a. Stare Decisis—“Let the decision stand”—principle that once the Court rules on a case, its decision serves as a precedent on which to base other decisions. B. Limits on the Supreme Court 1. **Civil Liberty cases make up the largest part of the Court’s cases** 2. The Court will hear only cases in which: 1. the decision will make a difference 2. the person or group bringing the case must have suffered real harm 3. an important federal question is involved 4. the question involved cannot be resolved by the executive or legislative branches 3. Court’s limited ability to enforce its rulings. (President may refuse to carry out or lower court judges may ignore) 4. Legislative & Executive branches have ways to check & balance the power of the court 5. With few exceptions, Supreme Court can only hear cases that come from elsewhere in the legal system III. Influencing Court Decisions A. Introduction 1. The decisions that the Court makes are shaped by the following forces: a. Existing laws b. Personal views of the justices c. Justices’ interactions with one another d. Social forces & public attitudes e. Congress & the president B. Basing Decisions on the Law: 1. Where the meaning of the law is not clear, the justices of the Court must: a. Interpret the language b. Determine what it means c. Apply it to the circumstances of the case 2. In interpreting a law logically, the justices must relate their interpretations: a. To the Constitution itself. b. To laws that are relevant to the case c. To legal precedents C. Views of the Justices 1. Most justices take same position again & again in areas of personal concern. 2. Blocs—groups of justices with similar views exist on issues a. Liberal or Conservative b. The size & power of each bloc changes as justices retire & new justices come in. c. Court badly split & a justice who is neither liberal or conservative may represent a swing vote—deciding vote D. Relations Among the Justices 1. Justices who work easily with one another are more likely to find common solutions to problems. 2. Justices try to avoid conflicts even when they are at odds 3. Chief justice can influence the Court’s decisions in the following ways: a. By directing decisions & framing alternatives while presiding over the Court during oral arguments & in conference. b. By making up the discuss list & assigning the writing of opinions to the justices E. The Court & Society 1. Justices are interested in keeping as much public support as possible. Court authority depends on public acceptance of its decisions 2. Values & beliefs of society influence Supreme Court justices. a. as society changes, attitudes & practices that were acceptable in one period may become unacceptable in another Ex: Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)—Brown v. Bd. Of Education (1954) F. Balancing the Court’s Power 1. Presidents influence the Court in the following ways: a. Using the power to appoint justices to bring the Court to their own point of view b. The way they enforce Court decisions. Presidents may enforce Court decisions vigorously or with little enthusiasm. 2. Congress has tried to control the court’s appellate jurisdiction by: a. limiting the Court’s ability to hear certain cases b. passing laws to limit the Court’s choices of solutions to problems c. reenacting a law the Court has rejected in a different form, hoping that the justices will change their minds. d. proposing a constitutional amendment to overturn a Court ruling ex: 16th Amendment—Income Tax e. Congress influences the Court by exercising its power to set justices’ salaries & to set the number of justices on the Court f. Congress uses its confirmation power to shape the Court’s position a. Senate questioned President Bush’s appointees on sensitive social issues in Senate Confirmation hearings.
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