Home > B1 > The So-Called “Weak” Supreme Court

The So-Called “Weak” Supreme Court

Many times, the Supreme Court seems to attract less attention in our minds and in the media than the highest part of other branches, like the Presidency or Congress. In fact, in our first day of learning about the court, we read Federalist #78 by Alexander Hamilton, which asserts that the Judicial Branch is the weakest of the three branches. However, this is not by fault: it is both intentional and beneficial.

The Judicial branch and the Supreme Court seem to operate differently than the Legislative or Executive branches. The justices are appointed by the President, not elected by the United States populace. Their tenure is for life, not any set term. Most importantly, they are meant to interpret the Constitution and current laws, as opposed to viewing them as concrete. Their ability to interpret and influence upon laws gives them, as argued in Federalist #78, the greatest power over the Constitution within the government. The actual words of the Constitution do not matter as much as how the justices decide to interpret and apply those words. The Court has a much lower turnover rate in terms of its personnel and thus is less susceptible to change in opinions and ideas than the Executive or Legislative branches. To me, the Supreme Court is one of the most intriguing facets of government. Throughout its history, its decisions have integrated schools, legalized abortion, further defined affirmative action, and upheld the Affordable Care Act. In 2013, the Court will likely hear cases that will have great effect on affirmative action, voting rights, and gay marriage.

How then, can it be said that the Supreme Court is the “weakest” branch, when it has clearly carried power and controversy in recent history? Truthfully, the Judicial Branch is only the weakest branch in terms of its ability to change the Constitution. While the Constitution may be absolutely central to what the Supreme Court does, the Judicial branch can do nothing to change or add to the words written in the Constitution. While the other branches can directly influence the Constitution, the Judicial only has the power to interpret it. This fact is, of course, completely by design. Montesquieu, a French philosopher who influenced the founding fathers, once said “there is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers.” This sentiment is later echoed in Andrew Hamilton’s Federalist #78, and its effect is clear to this day in the structure of our government.

A so-called “weak” Judicial branch, separating the modifiers of the Constitution from its enforcers, is one of the many smaller designs by the founding fathers that has had a large impact. The Supreme Court has managed to remain an effective means of enforcement for nearly 250 years, and with its recent past of justified decisions, it looks to continue to do so.




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