Supreme Court of the United States
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The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) consists of nine really old people who sit in judgment on whether or not laws (local, state, or federal) are in compliance with the US Constitution and have the final say on how the federal laws are to be interpreted. This power of the courts is called judicial review, and the precedent for its use by the SCOTUS was established in the 1802 case Marbury v. Madison.
One member serves as "chief justice," who, although still only having one vote on cases, has the interesting and sometimes important power to assign the writing of majority decisions (when they are in the majority) to one of the associates. This can be used to influence the exact nature of a decision — the chief justice might vote with a four justice minority (or more importantly, a five justice majority) in order to assign the decision writing to a justice with a weaker stand than the other members of the majority.
In practice, the most powerful member of the Court is rarely the Chief Justice but the one or two "moderate" members who are very often the swing vote on contentious issues. Anthony Kennedy is purported to be one such justice on the current Court (see below).
 Current bench
 Republican/conservative majority
Due to the Roberts court's conservative majority, its decisions have been some of the wackiest in many years. Members of this five-man group include:
- John Roberts (Chief Justice): A George W. Bush appointee, Chief Justice Roberts has opposed (of all things) the Endangered Species Act, and has been criticized for heading an "activist court"; the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission debacle is a commonly cited example. On the other hand, he voted to uphold most of Obamacare as constitutional.
- Antonin Scalia: Scalia thinks the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment does not apply to torture. Yes, he was a Reagan appointee.
- Samuel Alito: He has argued that Congress cannot prevent private citizens from owning submachine guns. Guess who appointed him? Dubya, of course!
- Clarence Thomas: A George H. W. Bush nominee, Thomas is the court's biggest wingnut, questioning Barack Obama's birth certificate and believing that corporate and PAC sponsors of political advertising should not be required to disclose who paid for them.
- Anthony Kennedy: Nominated by Ronald Reagan, Kennedy is most definitely not one of "those" Kennedys. Said to be the court's swing vote, being the member who sits ideologically between the four left wing members (see below) and the right-wing "Four Horsemen." In practice, though, Kennedy is a fairly reliable vote for conservative ideology. Incidentally, should he vote with the liberals (with no others defecting), he chooses who will write the majority opinion as he is senior to all those in the liberal wing.
 Democratic/liberal minority
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg: She was a Clinton appointee, and was a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU. She is also a women's rights advocate.
- Stephen Breyer: He has defended the Supreme Court's use of international law and is a stalwart advocate of abortion rights. Yes, another Clinton nominee.
- Sonia Sotomayor: Sotomayor was both the first Hispanic person nominated to the Court and Barack Obama's first appointee.
- Elena Kagan: As Obama's second appointee, Kagan has been criticized for everything from playing softball, to not being a judge.
 Other supreme courts
Of the US states, 48 have a single court of last resort (called the Court of Appeals in Maryland and New York, the Supreme Judicial Court in Maine and Massachusetts, and the Supreme Court elsewhere). Oklahoma and Texas each have two courts of last resort, a Supreme Court for civil matters and a Court of Criminal Appeals for criminal matters. A state supreme court's interpretation of its state constitution and its state statutory and common law is final and is binding on both lower state courts and all federal courts, including (at least in theory) the Supreme Court of the United States. Federal courts may still adjudicate whether a state's constitution and laws conflict with the U.S. Constitution or federal law.
Also, many other countries have similar ultimate judicial arbiters with one name or another. They tend to be comparatively functional and non-partisan.
 See also
- ↑ Court Under Roberts is Most Conservative in Decades, The New York Times
- ↑ During his infamous 2008 interview on CBS 60 Minutes Antonin Scalia claimed that torture may be cruel and unusual, but it is not punishment because the prisoner has not yet been convicted of a crime. At that point it's just interrogation. Hear that, all you nightstick happy cops out there? You can beat the hell out of a suspect before he/she has been convicted, but not after!
- ↑ Supreme Court Rejects Appeal Over Obama's Citizenship, The New York Times
- ↑ "This Week in Crazy: Clarence Thomas"
- ↑ Which Supreme Court Justices Vote Together Most and Least Often, The New York Times
- ↑ It goes to show that the less material criticism there is to work with, the more ridiculous the mudslinging will be.
- ↑ Kuhner displays impressive collection of bogus attacks on Kagan