The Supreme Court

The highest court in the United States began its term in October. From now until June, it will rule on issues that affect Americans in a number of ways. I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Sarah Long. The Supreme Court is our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

Congress created the Supreme Court of the United States more than two-hundred years ago. Over the years the court has established many legal traditions. Sometimes, however, the court surprises the nation.

For example, the Supreme Court usually lets lower courts make decisions resulting from elections. However, last December the Supreme Court made an important decision about the election for president of the United States. The court overruled the Florida Supreme Court in the case. A majority of Supreme Court justices ruled that some disputed ballots for president in Florida could not be recounted. The decision made George W. Bush the winner of the presidential election.

The Supreme Court's action angered some Americans. Some people did not think the court should have ruled in the case. Others did not think their decision was fair. But a group of newspapers recently released a report investigating a recount of the disputed ballots. Their study showed that Mr. Bush almost surely would have won the election even if the disputed ballots had been recounted.

The Supreme Court has a chief justice and eight associate justices. Their duty is to make sure federal and state laws agree with the United States Constitution. The president appoints Supreme Court justices. The Senate approves them. The justices serve for as long as they wish.

The Supreme Court has accepted more than eighty cases that they will decide this term. They include several important appeals about disabled workers. The court also will decide major cases about the death sentence.

Seventeen states that permit punishment by death also ban execution of mentally disabled people. The federal government also bans such executions in federal cases. Last March, the Supreme Court postponed the execution of a condemned man in North Carolina. This man, Ernest Paul McCarver, was found guilty of murder. But lawyers appealed his sentence because he has very low intelligence.

The Supreme Court must decide if executing mentally disabled people is cruel and unusual punishment. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution bans such punishment.

Another death sentence appeal involves a case in Virginia. Walter Mickens was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. He has appealed the decision because he says his lawyer did not provide an effective defense. He says his lawyer failed to tell Mickens that he had earlier acted as a lawyer for the man Mickens killed. The Supreme Court delayed Mickens' execution when it agreed to hear the case.

In Nineteen-Ninety, Congress approved a law called the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law requires employers to provide other work for employees who have become disabled on the job. This law describes a disability as an injury or condition that severely limits a person's major life activities. But lower court rulings have not made clear what a major life activity is.

Last month, the Supreme Court heard an appeal from the Toyota automobile company. The company had dismissed Ella Williams from her job at its factory in Kentucky. As part of her duties, this worker cleaned five-hundred cars each day. Over time, Ms. Williams developed hand and arm injuries. She could no longer perform her duties. An appeals court ruled that Toyota had a legal responsibility to give her a different kind of job.

Toyota, however, says it does not owe Ms. Williams a job. The company says her disability does not interfere with any of her major life activities. Now the Supreme Court must rule what a major life activity is. The court must decide what makes a person disabled.

For each case, Supreme Court justices hear arguments by lawyers on both sides. The justices question the lawyers to get more information. They read a great deal of written information about the case. Then they discuss the case and vote. A majority of the votes of the nine justices decides what will become the law of the land. One of the justices who voted with the majority writes the opinion of the court. This opinion explains the decision made in the case.

Some justices may disagree with the majority. When that happens a justice who disagreed writes the dissenting opinion.

The Supreme Court was established in Seventeen-Eighty-Nine. It was created as one of the three major divisions of the United States government. The American Constitution gave the legislative division -- the Congress -- the power to pass laws. It gave the executive division -- the president and other government agencies -- power to carry out these laws. And, it gave the judicial division -- the Supreme Court and lower courts -- the power to decide legal disputes involving these laws.

At first, this seemed to make the judicial division the weakest part of the federal government. But then, in Eighteen-Oh-Three, Chief Justice John Marshall declared that the court could decide if laws already passed by Congress were constitutional. Since that time, the Supreme Court has played an important part in approving or disapproving actions taken by Congress and the president.

Most of the cases the Supreme Court considers already have been judged in a lower court. The Supreme Court hears appeals of the decisions made by lower courts that involve federal and state laws. If the court agrees to re-examine a case, then its decision is final. It cannot be vetoed by either the president or Congress.

The president and members of Congress are elected every few years. To be re-elected, they must base their actions at least partly on what the voters want. However, Supreme Court justices are appointed for life. Their loyalty is not to voters. It is to a permanent document, the United States Constitution.

At different times in American history, the Supreme Court has helped make major changes in American society. In Eighteen-Ninety-Six, for example, the Supreme Court said it was legal to have separate public places for black people and white people. The Court said this was legal as long as those places provided equally good services. That decision was used as a reason to permit racial separation in many American schools for almost sixty years.

However, in Nineteen-Fifty-Four, the Supreme Court said racial separation in American schools did violate the Constitution. It said separate schools never could be equally good schools. That decision helped end racial separation in the nation's schools. And it helped launch a major movement to gain racial equality for African Americans.

American presidents can play an important part in changing the Supreme Court. Most presidents have the chance to appoint one or more new justices to fill the places of justices who retire or die. Presidents usually try to name justices who share their political beliefs. That means presidents may leave a mark on the court that lasts long after their own years as president have ended.

Some Supreme Courts have been conservative. President Franklin Roosevelt faced such a court when he tried to carry out economic reforms in the Nineteen-Thirties.

During the Nineteen-Fifties and Nineteen-Sixties, a very different Supreme Court developed. Chief Justice Earl Warren led this court. It made several decisions that greatly expanded the rights of accused criminals. The court also extended the right to freedom of speech and the right to freedom of religion.

Not all Supreme Court cases result in historic decisions. But many of them do. For example, some experts believe the Court may be asked to hear cases related to a new anti-terrorism law. Congress passed the law after the attacks on the nation in September. The lower courts may test this law, which limits some traditional American rights. Experts say the Supreme Court has the responsibility for deciding all the important issues in American life.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. I'm Shirley Griffith. And I'm Sarah Long. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.