.. ons flagged by one or more of the justices. Then, according to the justices’ public accounts over the years, they vote aloud, one at a time by seniority but starting with the chief justice. The chief justice is also in charge of running the meeting. Among the richest sources of inside information about the court are papers of the late Justice Thurgood Marshall from 1967-1991. They describe negotiations as cases moved through the process.
They show, for example, that only the bare minimum of four votes did the justices accept a case that eventually yielded an important 1990 ruling on religious freedom. Unlike the secret meeting to select cases, the court’s next step is quite public. Oral arguments occur in the Supreme Court’s stately, burgundy draped, gold-trimmed courtroom before a first-come, first-seated public audience. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, starting in October, the justices’ listen to lawyers present each side of two or three cases a day. In the 1980’s when the court accepted more cases, the justices heard arguments in four cases a day.
Limited to 30 minutes each, one lawyer from each side makes his or her best arguments. The scene is tense and dramatic as the justices, wearing black robes and sitting in individually sized, black leather chairs, vigorously challenge the lawyers, sometimes consuming large parts of their time allotments. Even experienced appellate advocates at times become flustered or freeze as they stand at the lectern below the long bench. Still, a lawyer’s appearance before the highest court can be the highlight of a lawyer’s career. When the justices pose different hypothetical situations, they are not necessarily trying to divert the lawyers. They are looking at ways their decision might be applied in the future. The justices may also use the occasion to influence other justices, bolstering one side and side undermining the other.
For all their attendant drama, oral arguments are only one part of the decision making process. There also are written briefs submitted by each side such as the views of the solicitor general, who is the federal government’s top lawyer before the court and other friends of the court. Also, the justices review previous cases on a subject, prepare their own interpretations of the law or constitutional provisions and sometimes, though rarely, turn to outside experts on the issue. For example, one of the most controversial elements of the court’s unanimous decision in Brown versus Board of Education (1954), striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine long used to justify school segregation, was Chief Justice Earl Warren’s reference to sociological and psychological studies. The studies concluded that segregated schools stigmatized children.
When it comes to making decisions, this is a whole process in itself. The justices vote, sometimes more than once because they may switch sides during the process. The first vote on a case is taken in the week of oral arguments. For cases heard on Mondays, the justices’ vote on Wednesday afternoon, again in the secrecy of their conference room. For cases heard on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, they vote Friday.
After the vote, the most senior justice is the majority assigns the task of writing the majority opinion. The most senior justice on the losing side will decide who will write the main opinion for the dissenting viewpoint. The other justices are free to write their own statements if they wish, but the majority opinion speaks for the court. Sometimes, justices say, writing an opinion that all justices in the majority will sign is difficult. Sometimes, justices discover through writing an opinion and trying to justify it with prior court rulings that the case was not what it seemed.
On occasion, the chief justice has thrown up his hands as the majority switched from its original position. In many instances, the justices may be perfectly pleased with what the author of the majority opinion is writing but will offer thoughts for variations on the legal analysis or language. The author’s task is to preserve his or her viewpoint, accommodate suggestions if it means keeping the majority and not to turn off others in the group. Based on what outsiders are able to discern from the justices’ public statements and from the opening of once private papers of some justices, the justices do not trade votes during this process. Rather, they engage in a constant conversation by way of memo. The give and take can last for weeks and months.
But fortunately, there is June, when the court traditionally wraps up its work. Beginning in early May, the court stops hearing oral arguments and increases its public release of decisions. Rulings are traditionally handed down on Mondays, although the court nears the end of the term, they are announced on other days, too. Law clerks are heavily involved in this stage, writing draft opinions, researching past cases that will support a ruling, even strategizing. The media are never told in advance how many opinions to expect on a given day. Reporters will be told whether it is a “regular” day, meaning four or fewer opinions, or a “heavy” day meaning five or more.
Returning to that very public forum of the courtroom, the justice who has written the majority opinion briefly announces the court’s ruling from the bench. As the court process ends and the justices begin their long summer vacations, public response begins. No matter how each term’s rulings change American government or individual lives, the nine justices usually remain detached, almost never commenting on their work but returning to their conference room each October to start the process again. The Supreme Court has issued dozens of landmark rulings during its 207-year history, and many shaped American government and the rights of individuals. While some did nit endure, some as the 1857 “Dred Scott” ruling, all reflect the mood of the court and dilemmas facing the country at historic times in history.
The following cases are those that have been most influential to us personally one way or another. The case of Scott versus Sandford in 1857 is one that not to many of us have heard, but it is an issue that we all know about. This ruling declared that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in the territories. Dred Scott, a Missouri slave who had traveled to and worked in free states and territories, asserted that he should be entitled to his freedom under the legal principle “once free, always free.” The next case that we will look at is probably the most recognized Supreme Court decision known to date. The case entitled Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954 is an example used by teachers nationwide. This ruling struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine that the court established in 1886 in Plessy versus Ferguson, which permitted racial segregation of public facilities.
The next case of historical significance would be Miranda versus Arizona in 1966. This ruling required police to inform suspects in custody of their right to remain silent, that anything that they say may be used against them and they have right to representation by a lawyer before interrogation. This is another example that teachers use nationwide. The last example of an important Supreme Court ruling that we would all have some idea of came down in 1973 in Roe versus Wade. This ruling made abortion legal nationwide through a constitutional right to privacy.
In closing, I hope that this short interpretation helped us all learn a little more about the United States Supreme Court system. For me personally, it helped considerably in terms of the research and the structure that makes up the Supreme Court. The finding of the present Supreme Court justices also helped in that I can now read the newspaper and have an understanding of the people they are referring to during the course of an article. The Supreme Court is the highest governing body within the state and on the federal level. The United States Supreme Court is the highest governing body known to us as an American people and for the reasons stated earlier, I could see why.