Kevin Bloor, Head of Politics, Headington School, Oxford

Recent
developments
within the
Supreme Court
of the US

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FPTP - Recent developments within the US Supreme Court

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The Roberts Court usually hears around 70 to 80 cases a year. Most are of a dry and legalistic character, with little to capture the interest of students or teachers. However, there are times when the Court passes judgement on a case that could genuinely be considered a landmark.

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FPTP - Recent developments within the US Supreme Court

  1. 1. Kevin Bloor, Head of Politics, Headington School, Oxford Recent developments within the Supreme Court of the US The Roberts Court usually hears around 70 to 80 cases a year. Most are of a dry and legalistic character, with little to capture the interest of students or teachers. However, there are times when the Court passes judgement on a case that could genuinely be considered a landmark. For instance, in the case of Citizens United v. FEC (2010) the Court ruled that corporations held the same first amendment rights as individuals. The Citizens United ruling was significant in that it heralded an even greater opportunity for wealthy interests to dominate the political process. As a result of the case, the role and significance of PACs within American politics has grown. More recently, the NFIB v. Sebelius (2012) also provides us with a landmark case to consider. In order to comprehend this innocuous sounding case, it is necessary to explore the wider background. The Affordable Care Act was a key element of President Obama’s pledge to improve American society. He had finally secured the long-cherished goal of liberal Democrats such as Ted Kennedy; that of universal healthcare for all Americans. However, many opposed the plans. The National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) along with 26 states decided to bring forward a test case on the constitutionality of Obamacare. Their efforts centred upon the individual mandate clause, which sounds rather technical but could potentially lead to the Act being struck down by the Supreme Court. Secondly, the judiciary plays a ‘political’ role in so far as it makes judgements of an overtly political character. Many of the most important political events within American history have been played out in the court room, and not just the obvious examples of Brown (desegregation of schools) and Roe (abortion). There is scarcely a political issue within the States that does not at one time or another come to the Court’s attention. The third and final implication of the judgement was the wider debate concerning judicial activism and judicial restraint. As with many aspects of politics, the verdict offers something for both sides. It could be argued that judges redefining a ‘penalty’ as a tax is an example of judicial activism. However, it could also be claimed that the judgement was based upon judicial restraint – in that it limited the role of the federal government, showed proper respect for judicial precedence and adopted a literal interpretation of the constitution. It is hoped this article might cast light upon the Supreme Court’s business. All too often, students approach the section with the belief that the cases mentioned will by dry and technical. However, this is not the case. With a little explanation, this particular section can be the most interesting of all. The individual mandate clause requires every American to purchase health insurance if they are not already covered by a work/stateprovided scheme. To a British person more familiar with the National Health Service, the individual mandate hardly seems controversial. However, to many Americans the clause is ‘socialistic’ and perhaps even contrary to the very character of the people. Supporters of the Affordable Care Act claimed that Congress has the ability to require every American to obtain healthcare insurance or impose a penalty under the ‘power to regulate commerce.’ However, opponents of the scheme claimed that it was another illustration of government overreach. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Obamacare was constitutional and that the law would therefore remain in place. The verdict was justified by the argument that buying health insurance is a tax rather than a mandate, and therefore within the remit of Congress. The case of NFIB v. Sebelius (2012) demonstrates three very important things to be aware of. Firstly, the judicial branch of government is genuinely independent. Members of the Supreme Court are allowed to reach their own verdict regardless of their supposed political leanings. There is no better illustration in this particular case than the role of Chief Justice John Roberts. Appointed by a Republican President on an assumption that he would vote in a conservative manner, Roberts surprised everyone by siding with the liberal bloc. Questions What are the dangers inherent within judicial activism? Why was Mitt Romney supportive of the Citizens United ruling? Why is the case of US v. Windsor (2013) a landmark judgement? You may need to research this.

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