A Historical Consideration of Significant Eras in the Supreme Court of the United States

Throughout the history of the judicial system of the United States, different Supreme Court Justices have taken a different approach to the functions and abilities of our government. Over the 226 years of the Supreme Court’s existence there has been a multitude of different approaches to government which have been illustrated via their decisions on significant Supreme Court cases. These rulings can determine an immense amount about a justice’s political preferences, affiliation, and beliefs as a public officer in a critical office. One such example is our current Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts. In many respects, although Roberts is a Republican, he embodies many key attributes of a liberal and has, in the past, sided with many liberal policies. One example of Roberts more liberal side is his ruling in the case of National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius in 2012. John Roberts’ decision in favor of the Affordable Care Act was absolutely pivotal in establishing his tendency and ability to side with pro-left and more liberal policy that have given him a more liberal appearance to many politicians over the last 4 years. Additionally, although Roberts has identified himself as a conservative Republican in the past, the modern Chief Justice has been approving plans that, by his fellow Republicans’ standards, have been relatively liberal. Although not all of Robert’ decisions have been liberal, his more pro-liberal stance in his conventional and expected rulings have lead many to hail him as a powerful moderate (and by some perceptions a possible emerging liberal). For example, Roberts’ ruling in the cases of Morse v. Frederick in 2007 and United States v. Stevens in 2010 were demonstrations of the moderate and liberal approach Roberts’ tends to take in his political rulings. This case specifically deals with the First Amendment and its applicability into messages that portray illegal activity or even violence. Contrary to Roberts’ claimed conservative stance, he makes a more moderate and liberal decision that such areas of speech are not conclusively protected by the First Amendment and this type of speech can be can be stopped and limited, a critical step in the evolution of jurisprudence of the modern Supreme Court. Another critical justice of the Supreme Court was Chief Justice Earl Warren. Warren was pivotal in implementing several levels of liberalism in the Supreme Court of the 1950’s through 1960’s. Specifically, Warren’s career was marked by massive reform in the United States including the transition of African-American Civil Rights which witnessed the desegregation of public schools. This institution of desegregation is critical to the history of the nation and the ke court case that illustrated the liberality of Warren and his fellow justices was the Gideon v. Wainwright of 1963 and the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education. Warren’s decision in the latter case was considered extremely liberal during its time and it encompassed the wider reforms made by the “Warren Court” under Warren’s office of Chief Justice. Another case that has made Warren a historically renowned liberal is his ruling in the case of Abington School District v. Schempp in 1963. This historically vital case centered around the constitutionality of bible readings in public schools, a common practice in america prior to the case. Warren’s decision, which concluded the case, made this action unconstitutional on the basis of its violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. In this specific case the clause was used to explain that have school-sponsored religious practices is tantamount to forcing a religious ideology on a child and that it is not in anyway the right or responsibility of the school system to make any form of prayer and have children recite it in the school. According to the Cornell University Law School’s account of the case, Chief Justice Warren declared that “the First Amendment, in its final form, did not simply bar a congressional enactment establishing a church; it forbade all laws respecting an establishment of religion. Thus, this Court has given the Amendment a broad interpretation . . . in the light of its history and the evils it was designed forever to suppress” The significance of Warren’s opinion in this case is the solidification of his liberal perspective on American law and the American judicial system. Moreover, Warren’s perspective on this religious topic reaffirms his predisposition to support secular liberalism, a position that believes in the firm separation of public affairs from the authority of spirituality and the church, during his time as Chief Justice. Along with Warren, another important and influential Chief Justice of the 20th century was William Rehnquist. Rehnquist was influential in his time for being a powerful Chief Justice and a conservative. Throughout his life as a Chief Justice, Rehnquist made several conservative and controversial rulings on cases along with holding relatively conservative views on religion and its necessity and implementation in the public. One of the most crucial examples of this was in Rehnquist’s fervent belief during his time as Justice in the constitutional division of authority between the states and the administrative national government, a concept also known as federalism. Throughout Rehnquist’s time as Associate then Chief Justice on the Supreme Court he advocated for politically pro-conservative policies. As a conservative Rehnquist fervently advocated, during his time on the Supreme Court, for the restitution of prayers in school after it had been taken away and revoked by his predecessor, Earl Warren. Rehnquist also made massive advocations and defences for the separation of government from certain issue; moreover, as a conservative Rehnquist fervently opposed overbearing national policies, and, as is typical of a conservative, advocated for less national regulation on many issues and comparatively smaller government. This sentiment was expressed in several landmark Supreme Court Cases. One such case was the 1973 landmark case of Roe v. Wade. In this case, Rehnquist then an associate justice dissented the majority decision of on abortion law and claimed in his dissent that the United States and its law simply had no business in determining the life or death of a mother’s unborn child. To the conservative Rehnquist this was a flagrant violation of U.S. Constitutional protocol. Another similar dilemma, dealt with in the 1997 case of City of Boerne v. Flores, which identified the role the Supreme Court would play in analyzing cases in the future. To briefly summarize the impact of the case, the case was able to set an example upon which future case decision were predicated. Specifically, Rehnquist’s conservative opinions about the limitations of Supreme Court jurisdiction over issues stayed true through his time in office as an Associate Justice to his time as a Chief Justice. Another crucial Rehnquist case was the 1981 case of Rostker v. Goldberg. This case showed Rehnquist's conservatism in greater depth that other cases. The case was specifically based on the Rehnquist’s interpretation of the Constitution in concern to the fifth amendment of the United States. Specifically, it dealt with the ethics of having only men apply for selective service, which, in 1981, was a significant dilemma for the Supreme Court. By Rehnquist's (and the court’s) decision the selective service’s policy of only including men for potential service was within its rightful constitutional guidelines. In Rehnquist’s own words, “The Constitution requires that Congress treat similarly situated persons similarly, not that it engage in gestures of superficial equality.” These words have resonated with the nation for over thirty years now and Rehnquist’s impact via his opinions and conservative predispositions has left an indelible precedent on the Supreme Court along with a lasting memory of Chief Justice Rehnquist. In the history of the U.S. Supreme Court there has also been a significant amount of strong and able Chief Justices during the 19th century as well. One prime example of this was Chief Justice John Marshall. Marshall, in his career on the Supreme Court, is often viewed as a conservative for the time in which he was a Chief Justice. A main point that supports this position is Marshall's strict and austere perspective on the use, utilization, and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. In his words, Marshall declared in 1803, when ruling on Marbury v. Madison that “A Law repugnant to the Constitution is void.” This perspective on the contents of the 1803 landmark Supreme Court case establishes the firm and relentless fervor of of John Marshall to uphold and interpret the Constitution in a strictly constructionist sense. Moreover, John Marshall’s ability to establish judicial review in the Supreme Court and uphold it throughout other court decisions was critical to the fledgling American judicial system. For example, Marshall’s court ruling in the 1824 case of Gibbons v. Ogden demonstrated the supremacy of the Constitution and the superiority of the Supreme Court in comparison to other laws established in lower courts. A similar assertion is made in the decision of the 1819 case of McCulloch v. Maryland. In this case specifically, the concept of legal superiority and state superiority in law was heavily scrutinized. Under Marshall’s court, the ruling was in favor of the nation entity, the Second Bank of the United States and the ultimate verdict cited the Necessary and Proper (Elastic) Clause of the Constitution, effectively reiterating the supremacy of the highest law in the land being interpreted and viewed by the highest court in the land. This view of jurisprudence was central to Marshall’s core conservative and constitutional beliefs as Chief Justice that established his policies of abiding by the Constitution. The concepts of judicial review, constitutional interpretation, and austere promotion of constitutional law instituted by Marshall was able to set a firm judicial and legal precedent that is crucial in the establishment of American jurisprudence to this day. In addition to the name of John Marshall, Chief Justice Roger Taney was also a critical force in the U.S. Supreme Court during the 19th century. Most of Taney’s decisions in office revolved around the institution of slavery, which became a highly controversial subject during Taney’s time in office. From the perspective of political alignment, Taney is widely considered to be a conservative. Although Taney was, by political affiliation, a Democrat, the party ideals of the time were very different than what they are now and there is a massive difference between modern “liberal” Democrats and the quite conservative Democrats of the early 19th Century. In Taney’s career, as previously mentioned, many of his decision revolved around the highly controversial institution of slavery and the legal ramifications and liberties a slave had in the U.S. One of Taney’s most famous and important cases, the 1857 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford was a critical suit that was pivotal in lighting the flames that fomented a civil war. Moreover, this case demonstrated Taney’s conservatism, for like his predecessor Marshall, Taney based the majority of his controversial decisions off of the document that had been used consistently to guide American jurisprudence, the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, Taney ultimately sided against the case of Dred Scott and decided in 1863 that the black populace and their descendents in bondage possessed “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Many people in the modern-era of liberalism and freedom for the African-American race have referred to Taney as the “Leviathan of Slavery”, however, it was not his stubbornness to keep slavery, but rather his adherence to a constitution that did not disallow slavery or offer any equality to races that caused him to make such rulings as in the case of Dred Scott. Another important Taney decision made on the subject of slavery was the Prigg v. Pennsylvania of 1842. This case was extremely critical, firstly in its solidification and affirmation of the powers of the government over states and secondly, the ability of men to be taken from lands of freedom and returned to slavery and bondage. This case and issue specifically has fueled much historical debate over the ethics of the fugitive slave laws which were the main concern of the case.Similar, yet less known than the Dred Scott and Prigg cases was the 1837 case of Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge in which Taney analyzed a clause of Article I of the Constitution the Contract Clause. In the case the validity of a charter to build a bridge came under intense scrutiny by officials in the city of Boston. Taney, who ultimately ruled on the case, referred to the U.S. Constitution to formulate his verdict and took a textualized approach, citing direct information from the document to validate his court. Therefore, Taney as a Chief Justice was a relatively conservative justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who used an extremely textualized interpretation of the Constitution to decide his cases, essentially drawing conclusions “by the book”. Therefore, throughout U.S. history there has been many trends in liberalism and conservatism in the Supreme Court. Each individual preference and fluctuation in political alignment has fascinatingly left its own unique legacy, precedent, and impact on the nation.


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  • jules rensch
    tagged this with good 2016-04-29 00:14:32 -0400
  • jules rensch
    commented 2016-04-29 00:13:31 -0400
    Sadly, our Supreme Court is yet another example of an archaic legacy stemming from our divisive “Two Party System”.
    America needs more Parties, more input, more ideas, and more seats at the big table.
    Bravo Modern Whigs….perhaps the end is near, followed by a new, fresh, clean start!

    Observer Jules