Checks on the Supreme Court

Just like the legislative and executive branches, the Supreme Court is subject to certain checks on its authority. These checks are intended to limit the Court's ability to “legislate” or make policy from the bench. With the lifetime appointment of its members, however, the Supreme Court is the most independent of the three branches of government, as was intended by the framers of the Constitution.

The Powers of Congress

If Congress disagrees with a statutory interpretation made by the Supreme Court, it can amend the statute or pass a new one to invalidate it. Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1991, in part, to overturn a series of discrimination-related rulings that it found too conservative. In 1998, Congress passed the Curt Flood Act in order to partially overturn major-league baseball's anti-trust exemption, which was established a quarter-century earlier in the landmark case Flood v. Kuhn.

Like other federal officials, Supreme Court justices can be impeached and removed for “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” In 1803, Samuel Chase became the first and only Supreme Court justice to be impeached. The Senate acquitted him two years later. In 1969, Justice Abe Fortas resigned from the bench in scandal before he could be formally impeached.

Nevertheless, there are times when the Supreme Court has the last word in its battles with Congress. In 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to overturn a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that it found too restrictive on religious freedoms. A few years later, however, the Supreme Court declared the RFRA unconstitutional.

Once in a great while, Congress will take the extraordinary measure of amending the Constitution to invalidate a Supreme Court decision. This has occurred four times, most recently in 1971 when the Twenty-sixth Amendment was ratified. By establishing the voting age at 18 years of age for both federal and state elections, it overturned Oregon v. Mitchell, a 1970 Supreme Court decision that declared it unconstitutional for Congress to set the voting age in state elections.

The Powers of the President

Aside from making judicial appointments, the president's only other influence over the Supreme Court resides in his power to enforce — or choose not to enforce — judicial decisions. This power is known as judicial implementation. As President Andrew Jackson once remarked about a ruling he disagreed with, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”

In 1997, the Supreme Court accepted the Paula Jones sexual harassment case to resolve the issue of whether President Clinton could be sued while in office. The Court ruled that a sitting president could face civil proceedings, as long as the proceedings didn't interfere with his ability to perform the job. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court.

What Jackson was referring to is the Supreme Court's inability to carry out its rulings. The Supreme Court can only interpret the law — it must rely upon the president and Congress to enforce its judgments and decrees. Most of the time this is not a point of contention, but if the president vehemently disagrees with a court ruling, it's within his discretion to refuse or delay enforcing it.

Following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which resulted in the order to desegregate public schools, a reluctant President Eisenhower was forced to send federal troops to Arkansas after the governor used the state's National Guard to block African-Americans from entering Central High School in Little Rock. Eisenhower only ordered the troops in after Governor Orville Faubus created a riot at Central High.

Disobeying a Supreme Court decision is a drastic political move fraught with danger for the president. Even Richard Nixon complied with the Court's ruling that he turn over his secret White House tapes to the special prosecutor. He knew that noncompliance would further erode his legitimacy and probably result in immediate impeachment. Only in the rarest circumstances will a president ignore or act contrary to a Supreme Court decision.

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