SCOTUS: How It Defines America

Ashwin Prabaharan ‘26

Opinions Editor

The Supreme Court, over the last decade especially, has received intense scrutiny and animosity over its decisions in socially and politically significant cases that work to redefine the most important aspects of our lives. Headed by nine justices nominated by the President and confirmed by a majority of the United States Senate, the Court stands as the last forum for appealing a lower court’s decision. The cases are adjudicated based on their constitutional merits rather than the specific facts concerning the original complaint. In addition, the Supreme Court has also become a powerful force in deciding on statutory interpretation, a bureaucratic agency’s manner of discerning orders passed by Congress and signed by the President. Over time, interest groups, political organizations, and individuals have filed suit after suit against various agencies over their interpretation and execution of congressional legislation, covering environmental regulations, economic policies, and executive actions. 

The last year, however, brought a bright spotlight on to the Court for its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a landmark decision in which the Court held that the right to an abortion is not enshrined in the Constitution. The decision overturned the precedent set by Roe v. Wade, in which the Court in 1973 ruled that the right to an abortion was constitutional under the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment or the “right to privacy” clause. The Court, now operating under a majority of Republican-appointed justices, has been described as moving towards the right of the political spectrum when deciding on cases concerning abortion, environmental policy, executive authority, affirmative action, and more. Six of the nine sitting justices were nominated by Republican presidents, including Justices Clarence Thomas ‘71, Samuel Alito, Amy Coney Barrett, John Roberts, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. The six now possess a working majority when it comes to decisions, and have vowed to take a textualist approach to interpret the Constitution to adjudicate cases. This majority is seen as the most conservative since that of the Vinson Court of the 1940s-50s and succeeds more liberal courts from the previous decades. When discussing public opinion of SCOTUS, polling shows increasing disapproval of the Court’s decisions and an increasingly negative perception of it. A Gallup poll conducted in September 2022 indicated a 58% disapproval rating of the Court, with 40% approving of its work.1^

The Framers, however, knew well to politically insulate the judiciary from public opinion, opting instead to create mechanisms to force judges to adjudicate cases based on their merits without fear of consequence or political pressure. Judiciaries in other nations, specifically those with developing economies and prolonged political struggles, find courts with heavy biases, rampant corruption, and a tainted electoral process where judges cannot effectively uphold the rule of law. The American judicial system, though not perfect, serves as a foremost example of an independent judiciary that respects precedent and shifting political winds, while effectively adjudicating cases with monumental significance. Cases such as Roe, Dobbs, Obergefell, West Virginia v. EPA, and Carson v. Makin define the way our social and political institutions interact with one another, how we interact with them, all in accordance with the Constitution. We may disagree with the outcome of their decisions, but the Framers brilliantly crafted into the fabric of our government mechanisms to utilize motive and ambition to counter the power of other actors, to provide differing visions for our nation that respects our politically diverse nation. Our government is as divided as us, and it is crucial to note that the Supreme Court is not the only body of monumental importance. Instead, it is one piece of a grander project, and it seeks to constitutionally adjudicate cases rather than impose its own will. Famous have been the courts of previous Chief Justices who decided on cases that were vehemently opposed in their day but are now the bedrock of our society. When working to understand the Court, it is important to view it through a lens of practicality and merit, rather than personal and political biases which we may place a higher premium on.

The most important point to understand about the United States is that it is a project that is not yet finished, it is incomplete, and there is no deadline for it. The Framers understood that this revolutionary and historically significant nation trampled on the precedent of other nations where rules did not adapt to the times, and it served as a pitfall for them in the future. SCOTUS ruling on issues now vastly differs from the methods used by justices during the 19th century, which saw Dred Scott sewn into our society’s fabric. The 20th century saw Brown, Miranda, Roe, and Texas v. Johnson conscripted into law, completely shattering the vision of those very same 19th-century justices. I seek not to serve as an apologist for the Court, but rather as a student of our institutions who hopes to change the consistently negative perception of our judiciary for the better, not for my politics but for its merit-considerate role in defining our nation.

1^ https://news.gallup.com/poll/4732/supreme-court.aspx

Featured image courtesy of SCOTUS Supreme Court Justices

Categories: Opinions

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