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The Court in Action

The Judicial branch, including the Supreme Court, is designed to be independent from public opinion. However, the President and Congress can influence the Court through future appointments, changing jurisdiction, and refusing to implement decisions. This system of checks and balances ensures the Court remains fair and impartial.
In this video, Kim discusses the ways that Congress and the president can challenge the Supreme Court.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] Of the three branches of the U.S. Government, the Judicial branch is the one that is least bound by public opinion. Supreme Court Justices aren't elected, they're appointed, and they serve for life or until they decide to retire. Usually a Justices serve on the court for many years after the end of the term of the President who appointed them. One Justice, William O. Douglas, was appointed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939 and didn't retire until 1975 when Gerald Ford was President. Can you imagine how much changed during his tenure on the court? The framers designed things this way so that the Supreme Court Justices can be independent consulting the Constitution and precedent to decide whether laws an executive actions are permissible without having to worry about keeping the public happy to get reelected, but this also means that it's not unusual that the Supreme Court makes decisions that the public, the President or members of Congress don't like. Brown versus Board of Education in 1954 is a good example. White southerners resisted the ruling refusing to integrate segregated public schools. Although it wasn't popular with the majority population of the states that it most affected, the ruling protecting minority rights in Brown versus Board was made possible by the independence of the Judiciary. In that case, the Supreme Court had the backing of Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy who sent Federal troops into the south to enforce the ruling. Even though the court is independent, it's still important that it maintains it's legitimacy in the eyes of the public, so that citizens believe that the court is impartial and that it's possible to challenge the other branches through the actions of the court. To maintain it's legitimacy, Justices on the court are careful not to give the appearance of favoring one political party over another by ruling too often for or against one parties policies. But what happens when the President or Congress doesn't support the Supreme Court's rulings? What measures can they take to affect the court's decisions? There are three main ways that we'll talk about in this video. Future appointments to the court, changing the court's jurisdiction and refusing to implement the court's decisions. One of the ways that Presidents can influence the court is by appointing Justices. Presidents tend to nominate Supreme Court Justices who share their interpretation of the Constitution, so their appointments change the ideological composition of the court. For example, President Richard Nixon appointed four Justices to the Supreme Court that altered the court's ideological leaning. He ushered in a transition from a liberal court under Chief Justice Earl Warren to a more conservative court under Chief Justice Warren Burger. Congress can also influence the court by changing the number of Justices. But today, we accept that there are nine Justices on the Supreme Court, but Article III of the Constitution doesn't actually specify how many Justices are on the court. Over time, there have been as few as six and as many as 10. There have been nine since Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1869, but Congress had actually eliminated seats in the 1860's. Then in the 1930's, Franklin Roosevelt proposed adding more court seats to the Supreme Court so that it's ideological balance would move in favor of his new deal legislation. So, although, the number of Justices on the court hasn't actually changed in 150 years, Congress does retain the power to adjust that number. Another way that Congress can influence the Supreme Court is by changing it's jurisdiction or the field of authority that it has to hear and decide cases. There are two places in the Constitution that say that Congress can do this. Article I, Section 8, which says that Congress has the power to constitute tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court, and Article III, Section 1, which says that judicial power shall be vested in the Supreme Court, and such inferior courts as the congress may from time to time ordain and establish. So Congress may add new Federal courts by splitting up an existing District or subtract them by combining Districts. Congress may also pass legislation stripping the Supreme Court's jurisdiction to hear certain types of cases on appeal. Some recent examples of Congress attempting to strip the Supreme Court of jurisdiction concern the detainees at Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba. In the mid 2000's, the detainee's petitioned the Supreme Court to review whether their detention was legal, and Congress passed two laws stripping detainees of the right to petition courts for review. The Supreme Court overturned both of those laws. The last way that the other branches can push back against a court decision is by refusing to implement it or by doing as little as possible to implement it. Remember, the court itself has no enforcement power. It has to rely on the executive branch to enforce it's rulings. So what happens when the President disagrees with the ruling? In most cases, Presidents enforce the Supreme Court's rulings whether they like them or not seeing it as part of their duty to uphold the government. But in rare cases, a President might choose not to enforce a court ruling, especially if their party controls Congress. An early example of this was in 1808 when the Supreme Court ruled Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act, the one with the famous, Oh Grab Me cartoon, was unconstitutional. Jefferson instructed customs agents to keep on enforcing the Embargo and they did. So the important takeaway here is that even though the Supreme Court determines the law of the land, the system of checks and balances still applies to it. Congress and the President have several ways to influence the court's power, present and future.