Week 4 Discussion 2: US Supreme Court
Read/review the following resources for this activity:
- Textbook: Chapter 11, 12, 13
- Minimum of 2 scholarly sources and 1 from textbook readings
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Magstadt, T. M. (2017). Understanding politics: Ideas, institutions, and issues (12th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage.
Initial Post Instructions
Using the Supreme Court’s website, research one case that deals with a contentious issue of your choice. (These issues can be racial discrimination, right to bear arms, same-sex marriage, hate speech, suicide, etc.) After finding a case, describe the Constitutional issue at the heart of the case. Summarize the points, the opinion, and at least one dissent used to come up with their conclusions. Did you agree with the majority opinion or the dissent?
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Week 4 Lesson: Developing Policies to Address Issues
The United States Constitution guarantees the right for the people to redress the government about any grievances. This guarantee is the fundamental right of the US’s representative-constitutional democracy. An essential part of this right is voting. Although the voter is at the center, getting policies passed to deal with issues is a complex system with different individuals and groups. During this week, we begin to see how various problems are brought through the legislative and court system with a variety of actors.
Politics is often considered a game. As in any sport, there are players, usually at least two players against each other. Understanding politics as a game, elite theories suggest a small group holds power to make meaningful change in any democratic system that is more fully developed. Mills and Michels, both sociologists, from the 1950s, explained that only a small number of people are in control of the democracy using their money and influence to protect their interests without regard for the public good (Magstadt, 2017). Michels promulgated his theory, iron law of oligarchy, mostly noting that only a few people hold the authority in any organization. Elitist theorists believe that in a democracy only a few political bosses from the political parties and select wealthy interest groups that hold power are always advancing their own interests.
The Election System
There are different types of electoral systems, and their influence on political parties is essential to how these groups form. Single-member districts mostly support a two-party system, whereas proportional systems allow for a multiparty structure.
To receive a majority of the votes in a plurality system, where the winner takes all, the platforms of smaller parties must band together to become viable contenders in the race. Therefore, there is the emergence of two strong parties as a means of obtaining enough votes to win the election. However, in a system where a portion of the vote goes to the percentage of votes received, two-distinct parties are not essential to being represented. As a result, smaller parties retain their distinct agendas during the election process, although it is important to note the need for coalitions in this structure. Whereas the smaller parties can achieve representation in government, a majority must still be obtained to pass legislation. The smaller parties form coalition agreements where representatives of each party agree to support the platform of the member parties. Coalitions require the complete support of all party members because the loss of one representative’s vote can mean that the clear majority is lost.
The two most common electoral systems are a plurality system (based on single-member districts) and proportional representation. A plurality system allows for the winner to take all. Whichever person wins the majority of the vote will rule. The United States uses this system within its federal elections. For example, when a presidential candidate wins a majority of the electoral votes, he or she takes office. This system allows for a clear party platform to emerge, but also requires those within the minority to accept the rule of a contrasting majority.
In contrast, a proportional system grants representation to all parties by the proportion of the vote they received during the election. For example, in an Israel parliamentary election, each political party is granted a number of seats based upon the number of votes it received. So, if Party A won 10% of the vote, they would win 10% of the parliamentary seats. This system encourages the formation of many minor parties because it grants a voice to all the parties within the government structure.
The Actors: Political Parties and Interest Groups
Whether you follow politics or not, there is little doubt that you have heard of a particular interest group or political party. They are a fixture in our everyday lives. The idea of representing the people requires that the government listen to the people. But with so many voices demanding to be heard, a single voice can easily be lost in the crowd. Interest groups and political parties form to aid the individual in his or her attempt to be heard over the cries of the many because as more and more people come together, their demands become stronger and louder.
Interest groups and political parties have some similarities. They both attempt to sway public policy. Where they differ from one another is to whom they answer when all is said and done. An interest group responds only to itself and its members. It lobbies politicians and may even run ads to support particular candidates, but in the end, it is outside of government. An interest group is not responsible to the public. It represents only the specific and sometimes limited, goals of its particular interest.
In contrast, a political party is comprised of representatives who ultimately answer to the public. Their goal is to win elections, not just promote their interests. In doing so, they must have a much broader platform than only one cause. It is kind of like the difference between working for the private versus the public sector. Although the job may have the same responsibilities, in the first, you represent the interests of your company, and in the second, you represent the interests of the people.
The Ultimate Actor: The Voter
The political party’s job is to win elections, and the way to win is to get eligible citizens to the polls to vote. In the US’s representative government, the people vote on representatives to the Executive and Legislative branches. This voting, though, is not done in a vacuum; instead, there are a variety of actors dedicated to getting people to the polls, swaying public opinion, and assisting with passing laws, among many other responsibilities. Before any public policy can be implemented to address the people’s issues, a candidate must be voted into the office, which is why political parties work diligently to get people to the polls to vote for their person. Interest groups, also, work with their members to get people to the polls to vote. If the candidate wins, then the interest group works with the candidate to pass favorable legislation for the cause.
Elitist theorists would argue that the people are not the center of the US democratic system, rather interest groups with vast resources, especially money, are in control. This suspicion became more poignant when the US Supreme Court, the highest court in the US, decided that limits on money in political contests were unconstitutional. Elitist theorists would explain that since this proliferation of cash into the election system, the interest groups are in control. Particularly distressing is that Justices of the Supreme Court are appointed rather than voted into office.
The Supreme Court and Its Power
The courts represent an interesting branch of the U.S. government. The Judicial Branch is the only branch whose primary powers are not defined in the Constitution, and it is also arguably the least democratic branch of government because its members at the federal level are appointed for life. Nevertheless, the courts have played an essential role in promoting and advancing equality and democracy in the United States.
According to the Constitution, the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court was to serve as the trial court for all cases in which the federal government or its ambassadors were named in the case. The Supreme Court was created so that states could not sue the federal government in state courts. Even though this was the original purpose of the court, the court has heard only 160 cases under its original jurisdiction in 200 years. The primary goal of the Supreme Court, as it stands today, is what is known as judicial review or the ability of the court to review the constitutionality of the laws and practices of other branches of government. This power turns the court into the final interpreter of the Constitution, giving it a very powerful role. But this power was not established by the Constitution itself.
The Supreme Court’s power was established by the early Supreme Court case Marbury v. Madison, in which the court decided that it needed to be able to interpret the Constitution to make decisions and that these interpretations had to be enforced by the other branches of government.
It is important to note that the Supreme Court cannot decide whether a law is constitutional immediately after the law is passed. Courts are designed so that they only hear particular cases. These cases are decided based on their facts and merits and only serve as examples of the enforcement of laws. There must be litigants (i.e., people involved in the case who are willing to take it to the higher levels of the courts) to hear a case. The Supreme Court is considered “the court of final appeal” in that it is the highest level at which a case can be argued. Most cases heard by the Supreme Court come through the appeal process, which means that the case falls under the Court’s appellate jurisdiction. When a case is appealed from a lower court, the Supreme Court may decide to hear the case if it determines that a substantial constitutional question is in dispute. Litigants in these cases must apply to be heard by the Supreme Court, and the Court receives over 7,000 such requests each year. When the Supreme Court decides to hear a case, it must evaluate the arguments in the case. Nine justices hear the arguments made by both sides, and often have questions for the lawyers in the case.
Every Supreme Court decision contains two elements: the vote and the opinion. The vote is a simple vote regarding who wins the case. The decision is of primary importance to the particular people involved in the case. The opinion, however, is the element of the decision that is the most interesting for the rest of us. The opinion explains why the justices voted the way they did and includes details and reasoning that set the court policy. The opinion helps determine the way lower courts and the Supreme Court will decide similar cases in the future. Decisions are not always unanimous and can include the reasoning of the majority (the majority opinion), the reasoning of those who disagree (the dissenting opinion), and the reasoning of those who agree with the decision, but not the reasoning behind it (the concurring opinion).
Legal Reasoning and Precedent
In the opinions, the US Justices explain why they decided the case the way they did. Ultimately the Justices review laws to ensure alignment with our written Constitution. There is an expectation that the judges will use legal reasoning as a basis for an opinion. In the United States, judges are not allowed to make decisions only because they have an opinion about a political issue. In fact, judges often make decisions that run counter to their own beliefs. All decisions have to have a basis in law and must have legal reasoning behind them. A judge might believe, for example, that it is wrong to charge very high-interest rates that take advantage of the poor and the elderly. The judge cannot render a legal decision that this practice needs to stop, however, unless there is a law against it.
When rendering an opinion, a judge will seek the most recent precedent. This term refers to one of the most important principles of legal reasoning. Cases must be decided in the courts based on how similar cases were decided in the past. If the courts have allowed people to have freedom of speech in the past, then the courts must uphold that freedom for all people and groups. Each court decision, therefore, must reference previous cases, and explain why the decision either maintains previous good decisions or overturns previous poor decisions. As you might imagine, setting precedent is by nature a flexible and interpretive process.
In the election system, there are a variety of actors helping to push policies to address grievances by the people, a sacred right of the US Constitution. To have the people heard, the people must go to the polls and vote. Political parties appeal to all voters by creating platforms to connect with the voter, and ultimately have their candidate win the majority of the votes, winning the office. Elitist theorists believe that the voter as the central actor in the game of politics is foolish; rather interest groups with a vast amount of resources end up controlling the election system for their interests. However, the people also have the US Judicial System as an arbitrator for their grievances. The US Supreme Court is the final arbitrator who renders an opinion based on legal reasoning and precedent on a law passed by the Congress, so if a person cannot get justice through the legislative process, then they try the courts.
Magstadt, T. M. (2017). Understanding politics: Ideas, institutions, and issues (12th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage.
Michels, R. (1915). Political parties: A sociological study of the oligarchical tendencies of modern democracy. (E. Paul & C. Paul, Trans). New York, NY: The Free Press. (Original work published in 1911).