Scales of Justice After Justice Scalia

Jun 3rd, 2016 • Category: Featured

By KARL MARTINEZ, age 10,
CARA CHANG, age 12,
MIA CHANG, age 12,
ALICE CHEKUNOVA, age 11,
and MADISON ROBERTS, age 12

Supreme Court Justices illustration
The current U.S. Supreme Court justices on the steps of the Supreme Court Building. Left to right (from most liberal to least liberal): Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Anthony M. Kennedy, John G. Roberts, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito. With Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, there are now eight U.S. Supreme Court justices. With only eight justices, some Supreme Court decisions would lead to a 4-4 tie. President Obama has nominated Merrick Garland to take Scalia’s place. But first Garland must be approved by the Senate. Republicans say they will vote him down. Who will be the ninth Supreme Court justice? (Source: Lee Epstein, Washington University in St. Louis). ILLUSTRATION: Ivette Salom

On February 13, 79-year-old Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died. Scalia served as one of the nine judges on the United States Supreme Court bench for nearly three decades. He left a big impact on American law.

To replace Scalia, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland, the chief judge from the District of Columbia Circuit. His nomination has been controversial, and the Republicans want to stop him from being considered.

Why is the future of the Supreme Court important? How will the Supreme Court fill the hole on the bench? What will happen now?

How the Supreme Court Works

The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the country. It is part of the judicial branch. The nine justices agree to consider 80 to 150 cases each year, out of approximately 7,000 requests. The cases the Supreme Court hears are appeals from lower courts or state Supreme Courts, and its decisions are final. Only a constitutional amendment or a later Supreme Court judgment can modify the court’s decisions. The U.S. Supreme Court decides on laws that affect people’s lives.

In order to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice, the president has to nominate you, then the Senate has to vote in order for you to be on the bench. Usually this happens when a previous justice passes away or retires. There are no special qualifications, like age, profession or citizenship, to be a justice. Anyone can be chosen.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. Supreme Court decisions often reflect the way our society changes over time. Until 1967, interracial marriage was illegal in many states. PHOTO: Elvert Barnes
In June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. Supreme Court decisions often reflect the way our society changes over time. Until 1967, interracial marriage was illegal in many states. PHOTO: Elvert Barnes

Justice for Life? The Debate over Supreme Court Justice Term Limits

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was the longest-serving justice on the current U.S. Supreme Court. He served for more than 29 years.

Term limits apply to many government jobs, including the president, governors in some states and some mayors. But today, U.S. Supreme Court justices do not have term limits. In other words, justices can serve for their whole lives. The only way a justice can be removed is if Congress impeaches them.

Many people think Supreme Court justices should have term limits. A Reuters/Ipsos poll reported that two-thirds of Americans support the idea that justices should have a 10-year term limit.

Some think term limits would help the court reflect the way our society changes over time. In June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in a decision that mattered to many people. Bringing in new judges more often would give old judges new perspectives when they are debating on cases.

Other people think term limits would let both the Democratic and Republican parties have their say by allowing presidents to make nominations more often.

What Antonin Scalia Left Behind

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had a significant impact on Supreme Court decisions since his appointment in 1986. Scalia was an “originalist,” who believed in interpreting the Constitution as those living at the time it was drafted would have understood it. As legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin writes, originalism leads to more conservative politics. “It amounts to no protection for abortion rights, no recognition of gay rights, and no sanction for affirmative action or protective legislation to benefit racial minorities and women.”

Learn about three important cases that were ruled in close 5-4 outcomes, in which Scalia voted in the majority:

Glossip v. Gross, 2015
The court decided that lethal injection did not violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Lethal injection remains a widely used form of execution.

Shelby County v. Holder, 2013
The court ruled that states with a history of discrimination can change voting laws without federal approval. The decision weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was put in place to protect against racial discrimination in voting.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 2010
The court ruled that corporations have First Amendment free speech rights, like people. And so, like people, businesses or unions can donate an unlimited amount of money indirectly to political campaigns.

Protesters outside the Milwaukee County Courthouse demand that corporations' money should not influence politicians. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations can donate unlimited funds to political campaigns. PHOTO: Joe Brusky
Protesters outside the Milwaukee County Courthouse demand that corporations’ money should not influence politicians. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations can donate unlimited funds to political campaigns. PHOTO: Joe Brusky

From Liberal to Conservative: Supreme Court Justices Today

The Supreme Court is usually made up of nine justices, but due to the death of Antonin Scalia, it is currently one justice short. The president is responsible for choosing a replacement that the U.S. Senate must approve. Republicans are currently the majority party in the Senate and have vowed to oppose President Obama’s nominee in his final year in office. Obama chose Merrick Garland because he is bipartisan, in hopes that the Senate would accept his nomination.

A person with bipartisan views wants to find common ground between the two political parties. A liberal believes in using government institutions to decrease inequality and is open to doing away with traditional values . A conservative believes in traditional American values, maintaining the status quo, and that individuals know what is best for people.

Supreme Court justices like Stephen G. Breyer and Anthony M. Kennedy are not fully conservative or liberal; they agree with a few thoughts from both sides. Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are Supreme Court justices who fully support liberal ideas, while Samuel A. Alito, Clarence Thomas and John G. Roberts are the Supreme Court justices who are extremely conservative.

Glossary of Terms

Appeals: Legal proceedings by which cases are brought before a higher court to review the decision of a lower court.

Controversial: Debatable; giving rise to public disagreement.

Impeach: To charge someone who works in a public office with misconduct.

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