If you only remember 1 thing about the U.S. Supreme Court, make it this: the Justices have the last word on all U.S. law, including the Constitution, and they serve as long as they want.
Okay, that was 2 things. But they’re both really important.
To put this in perspective: if your district elects a congressperson who turns out to be garbage, you get to replace that person in just 2 years. For the Senate, you have to wait 6, which feels like a long time — but not as long as Until They Feel Like Retiring, Damn It.
Also, it’s not the end of the world for us to have 1 or 2 terrible people in Congress. It’d be better if they were our best citizens, but there are 535 members of Congress, so 1 or 2 bad ones isn’t the end of the world.
There are not 535 Supreme Court Justice, though. There are 9. And They Serve As Long As They Want.
You can’t vote for Supreme Court Justices, but you do vote for the the people who pick the Justices. We vote for the president, who nominates the Justice. We also vote for senators, who confirm Justices — who, again, can serve until they’re 135, if they live that long.
What do they do while they’re Justicing, you might ask? Really, really important things.
A few Supreme Court Decisions that have mattered a lot
You could learn a lot about the U.S. just through its Supreme Court decisions: There was Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, where the Court said states can’t intentionally segregate schools. Miranda v. Arizona (1966) is the reason cops do the “You-have-the-right-to-remain-silent” bit every time they arrest somebody. In Loving v. Virginia (1967), the Court said that states couldn’t make interracial marriage illegal. Yeah: we sent human beings into space before interracial marriage was legal. And it took the Supreme Court to make it happen.
Here are a few more recent important decision:
- 2003: The Court ruled that Texas couldn’t make “homosexual conduct” a crime. Yes: Texas had a law that criminalized same-sex intimacy. In Lawrence v. Texas, the Court ruled against Texas 6-3. By the way: 1 of those 3 votes is still on the Supreme Court today.
- 2010: Confirmed that companies and unions can pump as much money into elections as they want (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission). This was a 5-4 decision, and 7 of these Justices are still on the Court.
- 2015: Legalized same-sex marriage in a 5-4 decision (Obergefell v. Hodges).
- 2018: Ruled that the government can’t gather your personal info from your smartphone without a warrant (Carpenter v. United States). This was another 5-4 decision.
Notice how close most these decisions were? The last 3 were 5-4. If 1 more Justice had believed same sex marriage was wrong, it’d still be illegal. 1 Justice separated us from the government legally accessing everything on our phones. No matter what you think about this, the point is: it really matters — which means picking the people who make them really matters, too.
The people who pick the judges aren’t neutral
You get to be a Supreme Court judge when the President nominates you and the Senate confirms you. Today, this means that the party in charge picks judges they think will promote their vision for the U.S., and other party tries to prevent them.
On the one hand, this sucks. Nobody wants to compromise, which means nothing gets done.
On the other hand, it kind of makes sense. If you think that women should be able to make choices about their bodies, you should really be afraid of who Republicans pick for the Supreme Court. Republicans will only pick judges who want to dismantle abortion rights.
And if you think abortion should be illegal, you don’t want Democrats to pick, since they’ll almost certainly pick someone who’s pro-choice.
Most people care about more than 1 issue. But the point is, today, parties pick judges who share their visions. This means it’s important to find out what each party thinks. When they pick a Supreme Court Justice, that person’ll be around making decisions for a very, very long time.