The Supreme Court, Law, and Public Policy in the United States

The Supreme Court plays a pivotal role shaping law and policy debates in American society. As the highest federal court, its rulings interpret the Constitution and statutes in ways that profoundly influence government powers, civil rights, commerce, technology, and criminal justice. This article analyzes the Court’s evolution, jurisprudential approaches, politics, controversial decisions, reform proposals, and overall impacts on public policy. The complex relationship between America’s independent judiciary and democratic governance continues unfolding.

Constitutional Design

The Framers of the US Constitution created the Supreme Court as the head of a federal judicial branch empowered to review legislation and executive actions. Their design aimed to balance government powers and protect rights by empowering courts to invalidate unconstitutional laws.[1]

Article III states federal judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate with lifetime tenure, insulating them from political pressures. Justices were not intended to make overt policy, but applying legal analysis to cases unavoidably shapes national debates and adaptation of laws over time.[2] The Court wields unique authority but depends on perceived legitimacy to compel compliance.

Key functions include: [3]

  • Reviewing laws and executive actions for constitutionality.
  • Interpreting statutes and government powers.
  • Settling disputes over jurisdictions, rights and obligations.
  • Overseeing lower federal courts and guiding legal standards.

Evolving membership and philosophies direct how justices execute these duties, fueling constant controversy.

Compositions and Alignments

The Court originally comprised six justices, expanding gradually to nine by 1869.[4] Their philosophies steer rulings, though consensus is common. General alignments include:

  • Originalists who strictly construe original Constitutional meanings.
  • Textualists who emphasize directly applying Constitutional/statutory text.
  • Pragmatists who consider practical impacts beyond text.
  • Progressives supporting social change and expanded rights.
  • Institutionalists hesitant to overturn longstanding policies.

The Court’s overall ideological balance frequently shifts with new presidential appointments after vacancies arise. Though nonpartisan in principle, nominations provoke fierce political fights, especially with recent hyperpolarization.[5]

Justices evolve over decades-long tenures reflecting eras’ changing politics and sensibilities. But presidents aim to select philosophically compatible justices to steer the Court’s direction. Recent rightward tilt threatens precedents upheld for generations with major consequences.

Key Cases and Controversies

Many milestone rulings proved defining for politics, culture and the Court’s authority. Some key examples include:

Marbury v. Madison (1803) – Established judicial review powers to invalidate unconstitutional laws.[6]

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) – Ruled blacks lacked citizenship rights, deepening divisions before the Civil War.[7]

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) – Upheld racial segregation under “separate but equal” doctrine enabling Jim Crow era discrimination.[8]

Brown v. Board of Education (1954) – Found public school segregation unconstitutional, catalyzing integration battles.[9]

Roe v. Wade (1973) – Legalized abortion nationally, fueling a polarizing political fight persisting today.[10]

Citizens United v. FEC (2010) – Struck down campaign finance restrictions, unleashing unprecedented money in politics.[11]

Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) – Established same-sex marriage equality in a milestone equal rights victory.[12]

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health (2022) – Overturned Roe v. Wade, removing federal abortion rights protections.[13]

Each politically explosive case prompted resistance, undermining the Court’s insulation and exposing difficult tensions between independent constitutional interpretation versus democratic policymaking.

Constitutional Theories and Divides

Debates persist over how justices should interpret the Constitution between original meanings or adapting to modern views:[14]

  • Originalism argues only the Framers’ intent and the text’s historical meaning should govern, not contemporary policy preferences. Changes require Constitutional amendments, not Court rulings.
  • The Living Constitution view considers social contexts and norms continually evolving. The Court should interpret the document flexibly and expand rights protections over time.

Conservatives favor originalism against expanding rights through judicial decisions rather than legislation. Liberals argue gaze originalism would still allow unacceptable practices like segregation. Both sides claim fidelity to the “true” Constitution amid polarized visions.[15]

Controversy also surrounds unenumerated rights found implied but not directly stated like privacy and abortion protections. Opponents argue identifying unstated rights allows justices excessive subjective discretion far beyond textual interpretation. This divides views on the Court’s role between restraint and activism.

Restraint proponents believe preserving modest interpretations maintains credibility and democratic legitimacy against charges of overreach. In contrast, advocates for activist decisions argue the Court must protect vulnerable minorities given political processes fail them.[16] Debates endure between competing principled foundations for the Court’s constitutional authority.

Court Politics and Reform Proposals

Criticism of partisan influences on nominations and rulings spurs frequent reform proposals:[17]

  • Term limits for justices could regularize turnover rather than leaving appointments to chance. But mandatory retirement would still allow gaming appointments.
  • Court expansion could rebalance unwelcome ideological skews from appointments. However, Republicans and Democrats would likely engage in tit-for-tat escalation.
  • Supermajority confirmation requirements could force bipartisanship. Yet today’s stark polarization could also produce damaging vacancies.
  • Age/experience qualifications aim to ensure expertise, but would face objections infringing on presidential/senatorial authority.
  • Codes of conduct or ethics rules seek to restrain political activities and conflicts of interest. Their enforceability remains doubtful.
  • Jurisdiction stripping would have Congress exempt topics from Court review, but risks dangerous legislative overreach.

Most reform proposals contradict the Court’s constitutional independence. Justices fiercely guard autonomy even amid controversies and charges of illegitimacy.[18] But pressures mount for accountability measures given high stakes rulings.

Impacts on Public Policy

Supreme Court decisions carry deep ramifications across fundamental debates:[19]

  • Civil rights – Rulings shape equal treatment for race, gender, sexuality, disability, and vulnerable groups in society.
  • Criminal justice – Interpretations determine police powers, rights of defendants, death penalty limits, and civil liberties protections.
  • Business regulation – The Court rules on antitrust law, consumer protections, financial/environmental rules and economic policy arguments.
  • Social issues – Major rulings defined controversies related to abortion, religion in public life, education policy and marriage equality recognition.
  • Elections – Umpiring political disputes includes judging campaign finance regulation, voting rights/districting and electoral rules impacts.
  • Technology – Applications of constitutional rights and statutes to issues like communications, privacy, and intellectual property arise frequently for the Court.
  • Public health – Legal challenges to measures addressing pandemics and healthcare illustrate evolving debates on state police powers.

Through these cases, the Supreme Court shapes Americans’ everyday rights, responsibilities and interactions with government and commerce. The stakes remain high for all federal judicial appointments.


The Supreme Court stands uniquely positioned to interpret US laws according to the Constitution, even where issues prove politically contentious. But tension persists between deference to democratic processes and protecting rights from encroachment. The judiciary’s sense of legal reasoning versus ideological partiality defines its future legitimacy and effectiveness upholding America’s founding vision. As politics, culture and knowledge evolve, so too must constitutional understanding to guide essential freedoms and order.


[1] Treanor, W. M. (2005). Judicial review before Marbury. Stanford law review, 58(2), 455-562.

[2] Whittington, K. E. (2000). Once more unto the breach: Post-behavioralist approaches to judicial politics. Law and Social Inquiry, 25(2), 601-634.

[3] Baum, L. (2017). The supreme court. CQ Press.

[4] McKenzie, D. (2010). The US Supreme Court: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

[5] Ringhand, L. A., & Collins Jr, P. M. (2016). May it please the Senate: an empirical analysis of the Senate judiciary committee hearings of Supreme Court nominees, 1939-2009. American University Law Review, 66(1), 23-129.

[6] Treanor, W. M. (2005). Marbury and the Constitutional Mind. George Washington Law Review, 74, 513.

[7] Finkelman, P. (2007). Scott v. Sandford: The court’s most dreadful case and how it changed history. Chicago-Kent Law Review, 82(3), 3-48.

[8] Klarman, M. J. (2004). From Jim Crow to civil rights: The Supreme Court and the struggle for racial equality. Oxford University Press.

[9] Patterson, J. T. (2001). Brown v. Board of Education: A civil rights milestone and its troubled legacy. Oxford University Press.

[10] Greenhouse, L. (2005). Constitutional question: the constitution and the Supreme Court. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[11] Briffault, R. (2010). Corporations, corruption, and complexity: campaign finance after Citizens United. Cornell JL & Pub. Pol’y, 20, 643.

[12] Prasad, S. (2016). The Supreme Court’s Transformative Liberalism: The Lessons of Obergefell v. Hodges for Feminists. Fordham L. Rev., 85, 2999.

[13] Enten, H. (2022). The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Here’s how we got here. CNN.

[14] Scalia, A. (2016). A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law. Princeton University Press.

[15] Balkin, J. M. (2014). Living originalism. Harvard University Press.

[16] Klarman, M. J. (1996). Rethinking the civil rights and civil liberties revolutions. Virginia Law Review, 1-67.

[17] Althouse, A. (1994). Vanguard states, laggard states: Federalism and constitutional rights. University of Chicago Law Review, 1945-2008.

[18] Grove, T. (2022). Supreme Court Leaks Aren’t Normal. But Restoring Trust In Justices Is Difficult. NPR.

[19] Whittington, K. E. (2007). Political foundations of judicial supremacy: The presidency, the Supreme Court, and constitutional leadership in US history. Princeton University Press.

5/5 - (52 votes)

SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

Leave a Comment