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The legal documents that ground the United States’ democracy, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, were written two centuries ago. Much has changed in the two plus centuries since they were written. New technologies and popular culture require those laws be interpreted and applied to new scenarios. In the American judicial system, the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. The most contested cases reach the Supreme Court. Cases that reach the Supreme Court often address broad issues related to states’ rights, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights. Their rulings often affect government policies or individual freedoms. Because the buck stops here, Supreme Court rulings are often much anticipated.
The Supreme Court handed down rulings on several cases this week including Thursday’s (June 28, 2012) decision regarding the hotly debated American Care Act, or Obamacare. The American Care Act signed by President Obama in 2010 has been contentious from the beginning. The crux of the Supreme Court case centers on individual choice and federal mandates. Opponents counter that the ACA infringes upon both individual rights by mandating coverage and upon states’ rights by mandating participation in the Medicaid program. The Obama administration claims it is a step toward universal health care and the protection of health care for all Americans. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the ACA with a 5-4 ruling. The ruling did little to end of the debate regarding health care reform, or the political struggle over the ACA. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared he will repeal the ACA should he be elected.
The Supreme Court is unique and important. This week you will explore the Supreme Court through a tour, photographs, biographies, interviews, and a timeline.
Place and People—
What type of building befits the highest court in the land? If you expect a building that is regal, somber, and symbolic, you are spot on. The Supreme Court was built between 1932 and 1935. Take a step back in history and view the C-SPAN collection of photographs taken during the construction of the Supreme Court. Examine several photos from each construction phase (beginning with clearing the site and excavation, and culminating with piedmont work and interiors). Double click on an image icon for a larger view and to read a description.
Begin your visit of the completed court building with the Chicago-Kent College of Law site, Ozey.org. Tour the Supreme Court. Use the navigation controls in the bottom left corner to guide your cyber tour. Begin with the exterior. What message do the statues and frieze convey? Enter the Great Hall. What do the men whose busts adorn the Hall have in common? Step into the courtroom. Be sure to watch the series of four frieze videos: east, west, north, and south. Discover the reason for this website’s unusual name. Peek into the chambers of Justices Ginsberg, Breyer, Stevens, and Kennedy. What mementos does each judge display? What might you infer about each from their displays? Imagine—what will you display when you are a justice?
Supreme Court justices are unique. There have been only 112 since the Court was established in 1789. Today’s Supreme Court members represent more diversity than any previous court. Learn more about the current justices by reading their biographies. As you read, consider: What do these men and women have in common? What can you infer from their biographies about the qualifications and qualities required of a Supreme Court justice? Do you believe a diverse Court is important? John G. Roberts serves as the current Chief Justice. Antonin Scalia has served on the Court longer than any of his colleagues. Elena Kagan is the newest member and the fourth female to sit on the Supreme Court. Sonia Sotomayor is the first Hispanic woman and Clarence Thomas is the second African American Supreme Court justice.
Jump back to C-SPAN to listen to excerpts of interviews with the current justices. Hear John Roberts discuss his role as Chief Justice. Listen to Judge Alito describe what it was like to interview for the court. Judge Kagan shares what it is like to be a new member of the court. You may want to explore the full library of interviews.
How the Court Works: Tradition, Terms, and Types of Cases—
Pause for a moment to imagine the scene during a Supreme Court hearing. How do you imagine people talk? What rules do you imagine dictate how the lawyers’ behave? Create a list of questions about how the Supreme Court works.
Some people consider a President’s most important job and lasting legacy to be the nomination of a Supreme Court judge. Why might this be so? Keep this question in mind during your visit to The Supreme Court Historical Society. Here you will learn more about how the Supreme Court works. Begin with first chapter, Dignity, Formality and Tradition and read each chapter in turn. When you finish the final chapter, Appointments, revisit your list of questions. How many questions can you now answer? Test your knowledge; have a friend administer a ‘pop’ quiz by asking you the questions on your list.
Hop back to C-SPAN to explore a timeline of the Supreme Court. Identify three events or people that seem most significant in the history of the Supreme Court. Why do these events/people seem most significant?
Finally, review the docket of cases the Supreme Court heard during the 2011-2012 term. Use the timeline and categories at the bottom to filter the cases by type. Sort for healthcare cases and read more about three cases heard at the end of March. (These bundled cases are the ones that challenged the ACA.) Select two other categories and read a range of cases. What issues were at stake in these cases? What makes each worthy of being heard by the Supreme Court? What questions and responses do you have about them?