Supreme Court

The highest court in the United States began its term this month. From now until the end of June, it will rule on issues that affect Americans in important ways. I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember. 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. The court has ruled on many disputed cases since then. Its 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 court has a chief justice and eight associate justices. The justices serve as long as they wish.

Seven men and two women now serve on the court. They will hear eighty or more cases during the current term. The court already has accepted forty-five cases. Experts say the cases are likely to produce many decisions about important issues. These include criminal law, illegal immigrants, minority students in colleges and financing political campaigns.

For example, the Supreme Court will consider a case about the length of prison sentences. The state of California has enacted a law affecting people found guilty of three crimes. The law orders that these people serve from twenty-five years to the rest of their lives in prison. It is the most severe in the country.

Many people oppose this law. They say it violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution if a person's third crime is a minor property crime. The Eighth Amendment protects against cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court justices will hear two cases about people punished under the California law. In one case, the criminal's third crime was stealing about one-hundred-fifty dollars worth of videotapes. In the other case, a man stole three pieces of sports equipment.

Lower courts are now dealing with some of America's most important issues. But legal experts say the Supreme Court probably will consider some of these cases during its current term. Two such cases deal with anti-terrorism measures.

The Justice Department has ordered hearings that are closed to the public for illegal immigrants it considers of special interest to its terrorism investigation. These hearings decide if the immigrants will be sent back to their own countries. Such hearings usually were public. But that changed after the terrorist attacks in the United States last year.

One federal appeals court rejected closed hearings. It said, "Democracy dies behind closed doors." Another court disagreed. It said the nation needs secret hearings to defend against terrorism.

The Supreme Court also will consider another anti-terrorism measure. The measure affects American citizens suspected of fighting for the enemy. These people may be held without charges and without legal advice. The Constitution guarantees citizens the right to be charged and have a quick trial. It also guarantees the right to a lawyer. But the government says these rights must be suspended to protect security.

The Supreme Court also may hear cases about how universities decide which students to accept. Students have brought two legal actions against the University of Michigan. The university has a program designed to accept more minority students.

White students denounce this affirmative action policy. They claim it unfairly reduces their own chances to be accepted at the university. The students say affirmative action violates the Constitution.

A nineteen-seventy-eight Supreme Court decision appeared to permit programs aimed at improving racial balance. Many colleges and universities began such plans after that decision. If the Court changes that decision, its action would have a major effect on higher education.

The high court also may hear a case about money given to political campaigns. Congress recently passed a law meant to reform methods of campaign finance. It limits the amount of money that can be given to a candidate seeking office. It also limits a candidate's advertisements – paid campaign messages. Senator Mitch McConnell brought legal action against the measure. The senator had led the fight against it in the Senate.Three judges of the United States District Court in Washington, DC are to hear the case in early December. Legal experts say the side losing this case will surely appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

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, Supreme Court 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.

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. President Bush may have this chance. Two current justices are over age seventy. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor could decide to retire during the next two years.

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.

Not all Supreme Court cases result in historic decisions. But many of them do. Experts say the Supreme Court judges could produce important rulings that will make this term a historic one.

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