Three Branches of Government

Scene of the Signing of the Constitution of the United States at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, painted by Howard Chandler Christy (1940), on display in the east stairway of the House of Representatives wing of the U.S. Capitol.
Chief Justice John Marshall, 1801-1835, appointed by President John Adams.  Painting by Harry Inman.

For the past two centuries, the Supreme Court has adjudicated competing interpretations of the broadly worded U.S. Constitution. Unlike most courts, the Supreme Court has wide discretion regarding the cases it will decide. Thus, the cases heard often reflect current social values and opinion. When written in 1787, the Constitution elucidated the structure of our tripartite federal government, whose system of checks and balances allocated power between the different branches, and between the federal and the state governments. The hope was to divide power between branches and levels of government with the ultimate goal of protecting citizens against the threat of tyranny.

In the early years of the republic, the Supreme Court was not the powerful institution it is today. In 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall writing for the Court in Marbury v. Madison declared the power of the Court to consider and overturn any act of Congress the Court considered inconsistent with the Constitution. The Constitution originally endorsed slavery and the withholding of political rights to women. Yet, over the past two centuries, the Supreme Court has heard many cases involving those marginalized due to race, religion, class, gender or political ideology and this interplay between the judicial system, the Constitution, and politics has helped shaped the Constitution’s meaning. Over time, the Court has reflected quite different political and judicial ideologies. Justices have brought their own legal philosophies, morals and values, derived in part from their social background as principally prosperous white male Christians. They have interpreted the Constitution differently from various minority communities who see the Constitution and its Amendments—especially the post-Civil War Amendments—as securing equal protection under the law and individual liberty for all. Indeed, in the 20th century, the Court endorsed a major expansion of civil and political rights.

Throughout its history, the Court has also made far-reaching decisions by broadening the issues initially raised by the parties to a case. For example, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), the Court extended a narrow question of whether “pay-per-view” movies made by not-for-profits were bound by the electronic communications provision of the McCain-Feingold Act dealing with federal campaign financing into a ruling that corporations  have the same First Amendment rights as ordinary Americans to spend money to influence elections.

“Scene of the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, painted by Howard Chandler Christy (1940), on display in the east stairway of the House of Representatives wing of the U.S. Capitol.

“[N]either the doctrine of separation of powers, nor the need for confidentiality of high level communications, without more, can sustain an absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial powers under all circumstances.” — Chief Justice Warren J. Burger on Presidential privilege in U.S. v. Nixon (1974)

 

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