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 Chapter 12 Supreme Court Decision Making


Section 1:    The Supreme Court at Work

Section 2:    Shaping Public Policy

Section 3:    Influencing Court Decisions



Section 1:The Supreme Court at Work


·        writ of certiorari

·        per curiam opinion

·        brief

·        amicus curiae

·        majority opinion

·        dissenting opinion


The Court’s Procedures


·        Since 1979, the Supreme Court has been in continuous session, taking only periodic recesses.


·        During the term, the Court sits for two consecutive weeks each month.


·        Justices listen to oral arguments from lawyers for each side. Later they announce their opinions.


·        On Wednesdays and Fridays justices meet in secret conferences to decide cases.




Getting Cases to the Court


·        Most cases reach the Supreme Court as appeals from lower court decisions. They come to the courts in one of two ways:


o   writ of certiorari—an order from the Court to a lower court to send up the records on a case for review.


Certiorari granted in FTC v. Phoebe

o   Appeal—a request made to review the decision of a lower federal or state court.


·        When a case is dismissed by the Supreme Court the decision of the lower court becomes final.


·        The solicitor general is appointed by the president and represents the federal government before the Supreme Court.


·        The solicitor general determines whether the federal government should appeal lower federal court decisions to the Supreme Court.


·        When justices accept a case, they decide whether to ask for more information from the opposing lawyers or to rule quickly on the basis of materials already available.


·        If the Court rules without consulting new information, the ruling may be announced with a per curiam opinion—a brief, unsigned statement of the Court’s decision.




Steps in Deciding Major Cases


·        After the Court accepts a case, the lawyers on each side of the case submit a brief—a written statement setting forth the legal arguments, relevant facts, and precedents supporting one side of a case.


·        Parties not directly involved in a case but who have an interest in its outcome may submit amicus curiae—or “friend of the court”—briefs.


·        After briefs are filed, lawyers from each side are given 30 minutes to present an oral argument.


·        A majority of justices must be in agreement to decide a case, and at least six justices must be present for a decision.


·        The Court issues four kinds of opinions:

o   About one-third of the Court’s decisions are unanimous opinions.


o   A majority opinion expresses the views of the majority of the justices on a case.


o   One or more justices who agree with the majority but do so for different reasons write a concurring opinion.


o   A dissenting opinion is the opinion of justices on the losing side of the case.





Section 2:       Shaping Public Policy




Life in prison for a 12 year old?


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Utah State Prison - Draper - Board of Pardons and Parole


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·        judicial review

·        impound

·        stare decisis

·        precedent

·        advisory opinion


Tools for Shaping Policy


·        As the Supreme Court decides cases, it determines policy in three ways:

o   judicial review

o   interpretation of laws

o   overruling or revising its previous decisions


·        Judicial review—the Supreme Court’s power to examine the laws and actions of local, state, and national governments and to cancel them if they violate the Constitution.


·        The Supreme Court may also review presidential policies as it did in 1975 when it limited the president’s power to impound, or refuse to spend, money the Congress had appropriated.



·        The Court can shape public policy by interpreting existing federal laws.


·        Under the principle of stare decisis, once the Court rules on a case, its decision serves as a precedent, or model, on which to base other decisions in similar cases.


Limits on the Supreme Court


·        The Court’s activities are limited by restrictions on the types of issues and kinds of cases the Court will hear; limited control over its own agenda; lack of enforcement power; and the system of checks and balances.


·        The Court will hear only cases that meet certain criteria.


·        The Court will consider only cases in which its decision will make a difference.


·        The Court will not give advisory opinions—rulings on laws or actions that have not been challenged.


·        The plaintiff must have suffered real harm.


·        The Court accepts only cases that involve a substantial federal question.


·        The Court has traditionally refused to deal with political questions—issues the Court believes the executive or legislative branches should resolve.


·        With few exceptions, the Court can decide only cases that come to it from elsewhere in the legal system.


·        The Supreme Court has limited ability to enforce its rulings.


·        The Constitution provides that the legislative and executive branches of the national government have several ways to influence or check the Supreme Court’s power.



Section 3:       Influencing Court Decisions

·        bloc

·        swing vote


Basing Decisions on the Law


·        Law is the foundation for deciding cases that come before the Supreme Court.


·        When the meaning of a statute or a provision of the Constitution is not clear, the justices of the Court must interpret the language, determine what it means, and apply it to the circumstances of the case.


Views of the Justices

·        Supreme Court justices, like other political figures, are people with active interests in important issues.


·        Voting blocs, or coalitions of justices, exist in the Court on certain kinds of issues.


·        When courts are split on issues, a justice whose views are not consistent with either the majority or minority bloc might represent a swing vote, or deciding vote.



Relations Among the Justices

·        Despite the lack of frequent interaction, the quality of personal relations among the justices influences the Court’s decision making.

·        A socially harmonious court is more likely to agree on decisions than one marked by personal antagonism.


·        The chief justice has several powers that can be used to influence the Court’s decisions.


·        During the oral arguments and in conference, the chief justice can direct discussion and frame alternatives.


·        The chief justice makes up the first version of the discuss list and assigns the writing of opinions to the justices.


The Court and Society


·        Unlike Congress, the Supreme Court is well insulated from public opinion and daily political pressures.


·        The Court’s authority relies on public acceptance of, and support for, its decisions.


·        The values and beliefs of society influence Supreme Court justices.


Balancing the Court’s Power


·        The president can have an effect on the Court in several ways:


o   The president has the power as the chief executive to appoint the justices—with Senate consent.

Supreme Court Nominations, present-1789 (1789-present)


o   As head of the executive branch, the president plays a role in enforcing Court decisions.


·        Congress can also affect the Court in several ways:


o   Congress can propose a constitutional amendment to overturn a Court ruling.




o   Congress can exercise power over the Court through its right to set the justices’ salaries.


·        Congress sets the number of justices on the Court.


·        The Senate can use its power to confirm nominees to shape the Court’s outlook.




Chapter Summary


How the Court Shapes Public Policy

·        Judicial review: Court may decide whether government laws are constitutional

·        Interpreting the meaning of laws: Court takes the general language of laws and applies it to specific cases

·        Overruling or reversing previous Court decisions to reflect changing social values and laws


Limits on the Court’s Shaping of Public Policy

·        Types of issues: Court deals mostly with civil liberties, economic issues, federal laws, and suits against government officials

·        Types of cases: Court hears only cases that meet certain criteria

·        Agenda: Generally can decide only cases that come to it from elsewhere in the legal system

·        Enforcement power: Court has limited ability to enforce its rulings


Influences on Supreme Court Decisions

·        Existing laws: Court interprets and applies laws to individual cases

·        Personal views of the justices: Political ideology

·        Justices’ ability to work together

·        Social forces and public attitudes

·        Congress and the president: Judicial branch works as part of the system of checks and balances