Supreme Court



The recent unexpected death of Antonin Scalia has created one of the most charged political events in a generation.  With the Presidential election cycle in full swing and the future of a divided court hanging in the balance, the stakes couldn’t be higher.  Join Active Minds as we examine the current dynamics surrounding filling a vacancy on the highest court in the land.  We will look at past confirmations in order to better understand the intricacies of the process.

Key Lecture Points

  • The Supreme Court is the third branch of the federal government and the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution.  Article II section 2 of the Constitution states that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint…Judges of the Supreme Court.”  Supreme Court Justices serve for life.
    Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016.  Appointed to the Court by President Reagan in 1986, Scalia was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 98 to 0.  He earned a reputation as a leading legal thinker, committed to originalism which holds the Constitution should be interpreted in terms of what it meant to the framers who wrote it as opposed to a “living” Constitution in which the underlying values of the original document are applied to modern society.
  • Examples of notable decisions associated with Justice Scalia are District of Columbia v Heller that addressed the right of the individual to keep and bear arms, Citizens United v Federal Election Commission that restructured campaign financing and Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores that addressed religious freedom under the Affordable Care Act.
  • Scalia’s death changes the ideological balance of the Court.  While Scalia was on the bench, the Court had 4 reliably conservative votes, 4 liberal votes and Justice Kennedy was a conservative swing vote.
  • Scalia’s death set off a political battle between President Obama and the Republican leaders in the Senate.  Senate Republicans, arguing that it is too close to the election, pledged to block any Supreme Court nomination made by President Obama, regardless of who it is.  Citing 14 occasions in US history when Supreme Court nominations have been made in an election year, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy.
  • Until Scalia’s seat is filled, 4 to 4 split decisions are to be expected. On an 8 person Court, a 4 to 4 decision carries no precedential weight and leaves the lower court’s decision affirmed.  This 4-to-4 split is expected to have a significant impact on cases currently before the Court dealing with voting rights, immigration, abortion, affirmative action and other closely watched issues.

Exploration Questions

  • Describe the political ramifications of Justice Scalia’s death on legal cases being considered during the current term of the Court? Future cases?  On the 2016 election?
  • Do you feel that the Supreme Court benefits from ethnic, national, religious and gender balance?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you remember a time when the Supreme Court decided something that directly affected you?  If so, what was it?
  • If you were nominating a person for the Supreme Court, what qualities and qualifications would you look for?

More to Explore

  • Info on the Court's operations and recent decisions Click here
  • Archive of Supreme Court arguments Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • Schwartz, Bernard. A History of the Supreme Court. Oxford University Press USA, 1995. 480 Pages. When the first Supreme Court convened in 1790, it was so ill-esteemed that its justices frequently resigned in favor of other pursuits. John Rutledge stepped down as Associate Justice to become a state judge in South Carolina; John Jay resigned as Chief Justice to run for Governor of New York; and Alexander Hamilton declined to replace Jay, pursuing a private law practice instead. As Bernard Schwartz shows in this landmark history, the Supreme Court has indeed travelled a long and interesting journey to its current preeminent place in American life.
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  • Murphy, Bruce Allen.  Scalia: A Court of One. Simon & Schuster, 2015.  672 pages.  This biography shows how Scalia changed the legal landscape with his theories of originalism and texturalism and how his background shaped his legal philosophy.  The author also analyses how the Supreme Court has influenced American society for the past quarter century.
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  • Urofsky, Melvin I. Dissent and the Supreme Court: Its Role in the Court’s History and the Nation’s Constitutional Dialogue. Pantheon Books, 2015. 544 pages.  Written by a recognized judicial authority, this book examines landmark dissents in the Supreme Court’s history and their role in public policy debate.
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  • Chermerinsky, Erwin.   The Case Against the Supreme Court. Penguin Books, 2015. 400 pages.  This Constitutional scholar examines the Supreme Court’s decisions to identify past failures of the Court to check government abuses and suggests reforms to improve the work of the Court.
    Click here to order