Where to write to communicate and possibly be ignored by the United States Supreme Court. Appreciation to Michael Moore for keeping his big mouth open.

U.S. Supreme Court
in care of (insert your favorite Supreme Court Justice's name here)
One First Street N.E.
Washington, DC 20543.

Say whatever you want. Whether they actually listen to you or not, if you're a registered American voter, it's their job to listen to your will. Why? It's in that silly piece of paper some people call The Constitution.

The Supreme Court represents the most powerful check / balance system in American government. Unfortunately, if the Supreme Court consists of a majority of one political party, special interests can result in unconstitutional decisions from by the justices themselves.

Most Democrats were rather pissed to hear about the 5-4 decision that stopped the recounts in Florida. A general cynicism towards the Supreme Court pervaded the country in a way that affected pretty much everybody who didn't want Bush in power, for whatever reasons.

But Libertarians, Greens, Democrats, Socialists, and truly "Conservative" Republicans alike should be glad to hear that the Supreme Court has been overturning rulings in some pretty high-potential-precedent drug cases. In November, their vote was 6-3 to forbid the use of "drug interdiction roadblocks." If you've never seen one, it's basically like a drunk driving checkpoint, except they're looking for illegal drugs. Cars are randomly stopped, a police officer allows a drug-sniffing dog to walk around the car, and if he/she (the dog) shows probable cause ("woof!") then they can pretty much search your car, even though they had no reason to pull you over in the first place. The sneakiest police would put these up on interstate highways, with warning signs posted shortly before highway exits. Anyone who exited, either after seeing the sign or just because this was their exit, was far more likely to get searched.

Today's decision involved a case of hospitals testing pregnant women for illegal drugs without their informed consent, then turning the results over to law enforcement to have the woman punished for doing irreparable harm to the baby. Yes, crack and heroin are very addictive and use during pregnancy may result in premature, addicted babies, but this can usually be cured, with added expense to the mother or her insurance company. Fetal alcohol syndrome is far more destructive, and smoking anything during pregnancy is just stupid, whether it be tobacco, marijuana, crack, PCP, little bits of plastic, parsley, or spaghetti. The court ruled 6-3 in the woman's favor.

Of course it's wrong to do drugs while pregnant, but hospitals shouldn't have the right to assume the role of moral arbiter and decide that any particular woman needs to be screened. And if they do want to test for drugs, they should have a particular reason, and they should inform the patient. Protection from unreasonable search and seizure is a right afforded to all people, and if one waives that right when receiving hospital care, it should be stated somewhere on the paperwork.

So guess who dissented, in favor of the hospitals? Scalia, Rehnquist, and Thomas -- the three most "conservative" Republicans on the bench. Why? Aren't Republicans against government intrusion? Of course they are, unless it involves the drug war. Since drugs are assumed to massively damage anyone they come into contact with, lives are further torn apart by law enforcement, in a crude form of patriarchal punishment that makes the problem far worse.

I'm sure this quotation is everywhere on everything, but it belongs here also, as Lincoln was our first Republican president...

Prohibition...goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded. -- Abe Lincoln
(This quote may be phony...)

I'm not sure if the November decision also involved a dissent of Scalia, Rehnquist, and Thomas, but I wouldn't be surprised. Be very afraid if Dubya does exercise his power to appoint another clone if and when the time comes... For now, there is yet another case to be decided that involves unreasonable search and seizure. The decision will be whether or not it is constitutional to allow law enforcement to use thermal imaging equipment to detect marijuana grow operations.

The United States Supreme Court

"Equal Justice Under Law."

The United States Supreme Court is the Judiciary Branch outlined in the U.S. Constitution. The founding fathers, however, left the origanization and general creation of this federal branch up to Congress. So it was that in the Judiciary Act of 1789 that the nation's highest court, the Supreme Court was passed into law.

Today, there are 9 justices in the Court 8 Associate Justices and the Chief Justice who are appointed by the President and approved by Congress. The first Chief Justice was John Jay with 5 Associate Justices: John Blair, William Cushing, James Wilson, James Iredell, and John Rutledge (Originally, the Justices wore powdered wigs, but Cushing was mocked and refused to wear them, so the practice ended). The Court is required by law to meet 2 times per year, and it did in a crowed courtroom in New York City for the first time in 1791 with little or nothing going on at all for the first few years.

The Judiciary Act among other things, required the Justices to take 2 trips around the nation's circuit courts. This was designed to keep the Supreme Court aware of the nation's laws, and general condition. However, rides in stagecoaches along bumpy country roads and long hours on the road proved too much for Chief Justice Jay who almost resigned until Congress shortened it to 1 trip a year in 1793.

Today, one of the most important buildings in Washington, D.C. is the Supreme Court carved with the words that are a part of this writeup's title, "Equal Justice Under Law." However, it is amazing to note that this was not completed until 1935. For the last 200 or so years, the Supreme Court held session in whatever avaliable space. Just prior to finally getting a home, it used to meet in empty Capitol offices.

The Supreme Court is in important and unremoval part of the United States' governement's idea of checks and balances. Although its descisions may not get the vote of the general public, or the president (FDR: Packing the Supreme Court), it's not supposed to. It's there to give interpretations of the Constitution, a job it does fairly well.

The 9 Justices of the United States Supreme Court as of November 2005

Chief Justice

Associate Justices



One of the only things the Constitutional Convention could agree on vis a vis the judicial branch was that there should be a single court of last resort for the United States of America, and so the Supreme Court was the only component of the federal court system outlined in the Constitution.

How big is it?

Considering that it is theoretically as powerful as Congress or the president, the Court really isn't that big. It has a paltry annual budget of $30 million, which covers a payroll of 350 people. There are nine justices, 34 law clerks (3 or 4 assigned to each justice), five clerical officials, and fifteen messengers: the rest are janitors, electricians, and the like. The Supreme Court even has a tiny police force who mainly exist to guard the justices.

The law clerks are perhaps the most interesting figures in the Court, aside from the justices. They are generally graduates of prestige law schools (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc), and have experience in the lower federal courts. Most hang around the Supreme Court for a year, sort of like legal exchange students, and then return to the Real World to take up a position on a law faculty, or a healthy six-figure salary with a big-shot firm. Some, like Stephen Breyer and William Rehnquist, return to the Court as justices.

So how does a case get in?

99% of the Supreme Court's cases get there through a "writ of certiorari" from the Court. To get the writ, one of the parties in a circuit court or state court of last resort case must submit a detailed petition to the Supreme Court, outlining the case, the decision, and why it merits judicial review. Four justices have to approve the case in order for the writ to be issued, and in 98% of petitions, the court denies the writ for one reason or another, usually because they're too busy to look at it.

There are two other ways to get in. One way is through "certification," where a lower court can certify a legal question and send it to the Supreme Court for review. This almost never happens. The other way to get in is by appeal: while this used to be common, the only cases that can be appealed to the Court nowadays are denials of injunctive relief by three-court panels in the United States District Courts, generally dealing with specific areas of civil rights, election law, and antitrust.

Actually, there is technically a fourth way to get in: original jurisdiction. If a case involves two states, an ambassador, or a public consul, the Supreme Court is the trial court where the case is first heard. Most of the time, the Court finds a way to get out of hearing these cases: only 175 such cases have been decided by the Court in the last 200 years. Perhaps the most famous of these was where New Jersey sued New York claiming a portion of Ellis Island. (They won, incidentally.)

So then what happens?

If you get in—not that you'll ever get in, but if you do—both sides of the case have to submit painfully detailed briefs to the Court. The oral argument itself is only an hour long (not including the mandatory opening "Oyez" procedure). It is divided into one 30-minute argument for each side, and usually consists of the justices endlessly interrogating the lawyer behind the podium.

At the end, the justices leave and talk amongst themselves for a while. Two out of three cases will be dismissed with a ruling approximately twenty words long. The remaining (and extraordinarily lucky) one-third of cases get lengthy written opinions, often in combination with similar cases presented in the same session. In either case, game over: you can't appeal, except (maybe) by holding the justices at gunpoint.

Man, this sounds kind of, um, crappy.

Well, get over it. The Supreme Court has only 43 lawyers, and those 43 individuals have to figure out what to do with eight thousand cases every term. They accomplish this by throwing out everything they don't find compelling, and a good part of what they do find compelling but don't find compelling enough.

Why don't they fix the system so the caseload isn't as burdensome?

Warren Burger and Roman Hruska already tried this in the 1970's by postulating a new federal court of appeals. It led to a legal cold war, where everybody argued about whether the new court should screen cases for the Supreme Court, or whether the Supreme Court should send cases to the new court. Nobody agreed, and the argument ended up dying as soon as Burger left the Court.

So who actually runs the Supreme Court?

Congress defines the court's structure, and the Senate approves its justices, who are selected by the White House. There is also a body called the United States Judicial Conference, which is headed by the Chief Justice and brings together all of the United States' key federal judges twice a year in Washington, DC to discuss how the court system, including the Supreme Court, can be improved. Only Congress really has the power to make any large-scale changes in the Court, however: the Judicial Conference can only make administrative changes.

Who were the chief justices?

  1. John Jay, 1789-95
  2. John Rutledge, 1795
  3. Oliver Ellsworth, 1796-1800
  4. John Marshall, 1801-35
  5. Roger Taney, 1836-64
  6. Salmon P. Chase, 1864-73
  7. Morrison R. Waite, 1874-88
  8. Melville W. Fuller, 1888-10
  9. Edward D. White, 1910-21
  10. William Howard Taft, 1921-30
  11. Charles Evans Hughes, 1930-41
  12. Harlan Stone, 1941-46
  13. Fred Vinson, 1946-53
  14. Earl Warren, 1953-69
  15. Warren Burger, 1969-86
  16. William Rehnquist, 1986-2005
  17. John G. Roberts Jr., 2005-present

Who are some of the more notable historical justices?

Check out:

know your leaders

How the United States Supreme Court became so powerful

Article III– “The judicial power of the U.S., shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish,” and it extends that power to “all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising from this Constitution.”

Marbury v Madison (1803)
Chief Justice Marshall’s decision that the suit was out of its jurisdiction, due to the unconstitutional extension of the Judiciary Act, gave the Supreme Court the power to review the constitutionality of a case/legislation. This was because Article III was exclusive and congress didn’t have the authority to include Mandamus actions.

Fletcher v Peck (1810)
The Supreme Court’s power over State courts was affirmed.

Martin v Hunter’s Lessee (1816)
Virginia refused to obey the Supreme Court’s reversal of their judgment. They claimed the Judiciary Act was unconstitutional. Virginia lost due to the fact that the States ceded some sovereignty by adopting the Constitution. The Supreme Court maintained its power over State courts.

Cohens v Virgina (1821)
The Supreme Court extended its power to encompass State Criminal Proceedings.

Scott vs. Sanford--Dred Scott case (1857)
The Supreme Court’s power over Federal Courts was affirmed, determining that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. “all other opinions must yield to that authoritative adjudication.”

US v Nixon (1974)
The courts were determined to have the power, under the Judiciary Act, to determine if evidence is subject to Executive Privilege (rather than the President determining that) and thus even the President is subject to the Supreme Court.

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