353 Hamilton Hall
The appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito have focused new
attention on the U.S. Supreme Court.
As William Rehnquist’s successor, Roberts has already begun
to guide the policy ambitions of the Court by limiting the reach of some of the Court’s prior rulings
on issues as salient as abortion and affirmative action.
For his part, Justice Alito is perceived as
both a judicial and a political conservative and therefore likely to help strengthen the Court’s
movement to the right.
With the departure of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the moderate
conservative upon whom the outcome of numerous salient issues hinged, Justice Anthony Kennedy
now appears to be the critical member for determining the future of legal policy.
Americans have developed a considerable interest in that legal policy.
At least since the
1950s, they have perceived the Supreme Court as a governmental institution with significant
influence over the political, social, and economic issues that affect their lives.
As a consequence,
various constituencies of the Court care a great deal about who gets to serve on the high court.
This has not always been the case.
The Founding Fathers contemplated a relatively limited
role for the federal judiciary, devoting only minimal constitutional language to the judicial article:
Supreme Court and such other courts as Congress deemed prudent to provide, with the power to
hear disputes arising under federal law.
With no requirements regarding its size or qualifications for
membership, the Court got off to a slow start.
During its early years, for example, the Court was
relegated to, among other places, the basement of the Capitol building, a room “little better than a
dunjeon,” according to one observer.
It was a modest player in Washington
s power game.
Consequently, potential justices were, quite unlike today, reluctant to serve on the Court, opting
instead for more prestigious political posts.
Those who did accept faced literally life-threatening
responsibilities, as they crisscrossed the countryside each year to help staff lower federal courts.
the Court itself, the cases were often trivial, decisionmaking was informal, and the policies the
justices produced commanded little attention.
Clearly, the members of the Court were not
originally envisioned as occupying a central position in American political life, and yet today they do
--- and in significant degrees.
The modern Court has become transformed in a number of important respects.
justices now hear and decide cases in their own magnificent structure, the “Marble Palace,” adjacent
to the Capitol.
Service on the bench is highly coveted, and there is certainly no shortage of
qualified individuals who are keen to fill vacancies when they occur.
Similarly, the scope of its
authority is quite extensive, selecting only a small number of cases from an annual docket of roughly