Importance of Supreme Court Justices
What’s at stake with a new Supreme Court Justice? What does it mean? What is going to happen? How does any of this affect me?
To answer the question of what’s at stake, let’s take a long-ago historical example of how a changed Supreme Court changed the lives of all Americans. Hopefully this will show the importance of a new Supreme Court Justice, taking it out of the context of today’s hotly contested issues.
How Paper Money became “Constitutional”
Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states Congress shall have the power “to coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures.” So, it is unquestioned that Congress can mint money in the form of coins.
Article 1, Section 10 states “No state shall … coin money; emit bills of credit; make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts….”
“Emit bills of credit” means issue paper money. This clause was put into the Constitution because of disasters caused by state governments and the Continental Congress issuing paper money prior to adoption of the Constitution.
State governments were regarded as superior to the federal government, so any powers denied state governments were also denied the federal government by the 10th Amendment which states “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Therefore, our present money system based on paper money issued by the Federal Reserve was considered to violate the Constitution.
During the Civil War the federal government issued “greenbacks,” which were paper money not backed by gold or silver. In 1871, five years after the Civil War, a legal case reached the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of such paper money. It was ruled unconstitutional by a five to three vote of the Supreme Court Justices. (Hepburn v. Griswold (1870)).
Shortly thereafter, Congress enacted a law which increased the number of Justices on the Supreme Court from eight to nine. One Justice retired, leaving two vacant seats on the Court. Then President Ulysses S. Grant appointed two new Justices who felt paper money was constitutional.
The following year, in 1871, the Court reversed its position with a five to four majority vote and ruled government issued paper money was now Constitutional. (Knox v. Lee 1871).
What is Constitutional or Unconstitutional Today?
Article III of the Constitution describes in broad strokes the power of the Supreme Court. Section 2 of this Articles states:
“The judicial power shall extend to all cases in law and equity arising under this Constitution…” Basically, the Supreme Court has the authority to declare any US laws or actions by our government or its citizens “Unconstitutional.”
There are many points of view today on how to interpret the Constitution and what is Constitutional or Unconstiutional. Two such points of view are:
1. Strict interpretation advocates that the federal government has only those powers as identified in the Constitution. That the “original intent” of the writers of the Constitution should be examined.
2. The Constitution is a living and breathing document is a view advocating that Constitutional decisions need to be based on prior Supreme Court precedents, common sense, fairness and good policy; and not the Constitution itself as there are more than 200 years of Supreme Court precedents that have already interpreted the Constitution.
One view is that if something is not in the Constitution, it’s unconstitutional—that the Constitution could be turned into “a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist, and shape into any form they please.” (Quote from Thomas Jefferson.)
Another view is the Constitution should be seen as evolving over time to meet the needs of society. Why should the Supreme Court look to its original meaning when the Constitution itself permitted slavery? If something is fair treatment, it’s Constitutional.
These are extremely oversimplified definitions but do show a basic thrust of these two opposing arguments.
Now that Elena Kagan has been appointed to the Supreme Court on August 7, 2010, we will see what change she will bring to the Supreme Court.