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How Congress Overturns USSC Decisions, Research Paper Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1234

Research Paper

Introduction

In what is essentially a broadly-applied triumvirate, the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the United States government interact in the “checks and balances” system taught to schoolchildren. The concept is logical and seemingly comprehensive; no single arm of the government may exceed its authority without an appropriate and preventive response from the others, and the U.S. relies upon this balance of power to ensure an equitable and perpetually reflective foundation of government.

Occasionally, however, circumstances arise wherein a more decisive authority is required, and that same parity of power necessary to preserving the government serves to thwart resolutions. All branches are, in essence, equal, yet one must be empowered, if only contingently, to settle disputes which occur at these highest levels. As may be expected, the United States Constitution is taken as the final authority, and the source to be turned to at such times. This typically then presents the dilemma of interpretation, and the United States Supreme Court (USSC) takes on the task of deciding the constitutionality of the issue at hand and, consequently, dictating the governmental response. As will be noted, this process reveals unique and inventive strategies, when Congress is in opposition to a USSC ruling, or when the court itself is confronted with the challenge of rethinking congressional actions.

The USSC and Congress

Perhaps surprising to a modern society is how little regarded the USSC was, and for quite some time after its founding. The institution is viewed with a nearly reverential eye today, yet this was by no means its history:  “According to (Alexander) Hamilton…the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power…” (Hall, 2).  As time passed and the nature of the issues confronting a far more stable nation changed, the USSC gained in repute and power because its interpretative role was increasingly essential in resolving problems more related to internal conflicts and personal liberties.

Nonetheless, and perhaps because of its past as a disregarded branch of the government, the USSC has long had an adversarial relationship with Congress. “The Supreme Court in the twentieth century had watched passively as Congress passed more and more laws in areas of traditional state concerns” (Greenburg, 148). Congress had long been accustomed to creating laws covering a wide range of issues, and employing its authority over interstate commerce as a legislative “blanket”; few issues, plainly, could not be made to conform to the category. The point came, however, when the USSC was compelled to challenge certain congressional rulings, as in the United States v. Lopez case. Here, the USSC  “…ruled that a federal gun control law exceeded the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce” (Hall, 55). While this was not the first instance of the USSC defying Congress, it is noteworthy in that it is emblematic of the nature of the struggles between these departments, in that civil liberties and potentials for danger to society are combined with commercial activities.

Generally speaking, the actual conflict between Congress and the USSC has been minimal, or at least minimally demonstrated in judicial and legislative action: “When we examine the Supreme Court’s constitutional review of congressional statutes we find significant evidence of…a strong norm for deference to Congress” (Keith, 26). The USSC rarely opposes Congress, and has nullified its statutes at a rate of less than one per year, on average.

Nonetheless, when opposition occurs, the same vital factor of constitutional interpretation comes into play, along with the questioning of the USSC’s ultimate authority to interpret. At such times, Congress calls into play all its legislative weaponry. In 1984’s Grove City College v. Bell, which centered on federal funding for schools that ostensibly practiced discrimination policies, the court issued a narrow ruling indeed, asserting that only the part of the school which could be proved discriminatory was ineligible to receive federal funds. Here, too, was an instance where traditional boundaries were crossed; Congress had the acknowledged power to dictate the funding, yet the civil liberties aspect was more the province of the USSC. Given the court’s decision and prompted by a largely outraged public, Congress made multiple efforts to introduce legislation in funding which would effectively negate the ruling. Eventually, it succeeded, but not without support from the executive branch: “Congress and President Reagan essentially overruled Grove City with the enactment of the Civil War Restoration Act of 1988” (Russo, 411).

This case, in fact, exemplifies the nature of the conflicts which arise between Congress and the USSC. The former is in power by virtue of the election process, which is intrinsically implemented by the current society; the latter is bound to interpret law through the single prism of the United States Constitution, no matter the tides of popular belief running contrary to that document’s expressions. In such a scenario, dispute is inevitable. The court’s power is absolute in a judicial sense, and Congress is legally bound to abide by its rulings. Interestingly, however, Congress has one, unimpeachable form of redress when in opposition to the court: it can simply change the document the court is interpreting.

Congressional Amendments

Congress does not have the authority to overturn the Supreme Court, nor does the President. As the court’s rulings have always been understood to uphold and reflect the law, the power is not contrary to the checks and balances system. Rather, it exists to reinforce what must be conformity to the Constitution demonstrated by the three branches.

It happens, then, that Congress exercises its legislative abilities to circumvent the USSC. On a relatively easier level, Congress may decide that the USSC is not empowered to rule on a case by virtue of jurisdictional limitations. This action does not challenge the USSC’s authority; it merely prevents the court from employing it. Then, and most influentially, Congress has the power to draft amendments to the Constitution. Arguably, the most well-known instance of this occurring was the drafting of the Fourteenth Amendment, on the heels of the USSC’s hearing of the Dred Scott case. The court had ruled that, as a slave, Scott was inherently unable to sue for his own freedom; the new amendment, in conferring citizenship on all born or naturalized Americans, rendered such verdicts wholly inapplicable.

Conclusion

Dred Scott must stand always as evidence of the system working at its best, for all parties concerned exercised their powers correctly, and in the responsive manner a responsible government must manifest. The court had ruled justly, reading the existing law as it plainly read. The nation, then, acting through Congress, was compelled to change the law itself.

By taking this route of creating new law, Congress is, in a sense, still cooperating fully with the USSC. It is not arguing interpretation, but asserting that the matter being interpreted requires revision, and this process affirms the efficacy of the three major branches working in concert.

Works Cited

Greenburg, J. C. Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court. New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2008. Print.

Hall, K. L. The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Hall, M. E. K.  The Nature of Supreme Court Power. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print.

Keith, L. C. The U.S. Supreme Court and the Judicial Review of Congress: Two Hundred Yearsnin the Exercise of the Court’s Most Potent Power. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. 2008 Print.

Russo, C. J. Encyclopedia of Educational Law, Volume I. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2008. Print.

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