The U.S. Supreme Court is one of the most important branches of our tripartite form of government, yet I am always amazed at the small amount of coverage our highest tribunal receives. It would appear that we pay little attention to the proceedings of the court, except at the time it decides landmark cases.
Thousands of cases covering a myriad of issues important not only to the individual litigants but to all of us (since the cases set up precedents for later cases) go through the courts each year with a very select few going to the U.S. Supreme Court. I thought a brief look at some of the most controversial cases might be in order.
Abortion: The Supreme Court in Stenberg v. Carhart with a 5-4 split, struck down a Nebraska law that outlawed the controversial type of abortion known as "partial birth" abortion, a rather brutal procedure that many on the "pro-choice" side of this issue admit the procedure is too extreme.
It should be noted that one of the justices in the majority noted that the law was too broadly written that it might be used to stop non-viable fetuses from being aborted and that the statute contained no "health" exception. This leads me to believe that a more narrowly drawn law might be upheld.
The Court in Hill v. Colorado, and decided by a 6-3 majority, voted to uphold a law that set eight feet as the distance for abortion protesters to hand out pamphlets and counsel women against having abortions. An analysis of this case clearly shows the law was selectively made to burden certain types of speech. As a "pro-choice" conservative, I am quite aware of the burden women must bear to get abortions, but I am also against selectively limiting free speech rights.
Federalism: This issue is less controversial than abortion, but is of major importance, as the move for less government remains a guiding principle of modern conservatism.
The central issue is what domain is rightfully the purview of the federal government as opposed to the rights of the states. The Court unanimously ruled that Massachusetts did not have the power to withhold state businesses from engaging in business with Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) in Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council because only the federal government is allowed to make foreign policy decisions.
In U.S. v. Morrison, and with a bare majority of 5-4, the Court blocked a federal law that allowed women to sue in federal court for crimes motivated by gender (the particular case dealt with a rape at a state university) because such crimes were the realm of the state.
These types of cases are problematic in that they seldom leave any middle ground to be explored. Shouldn't the people of Massachusetts, through their elected officials, be allowed to decide with whom to do business? Isn't protection of women on equal protection grounds in some cases the proper role of the federal government? It seems the issues of states rights vs. federal government rights will never be resolved.
Criminal Law: Even though the court has a decidedly conservative bent, justices surprised many observers with their decision in Dickerson v. U.S. in upholding the right to the famous Miranda Warning ("you have the right to remain silent ... now book 'em,.Dano...") by a 7-2 vote.
The court revisited the Fourth Amendment and upheld your right not to have your luggage "felt" by the police without a warrant by another 7-2 vote in Bond v. U.S. I know my luggage is happy about this one!
Another important case was Aprendi v. New Jersey, in which the Court struck down a "hate crimes" conviction by a bare majority because the jury was not given the job of deciding the "motive" of the crime which would have enhanced the penalty for sentencing purposes. I am opposed to "hate crimes" legislation for various reasons, but I also understand that technical due process cases are very important to upholding all other constitutional rights.
Parental Rights: A Washington State law allows judges to give custody of children to a third party, even when the parents did not agree with the person chosen. Though the extreme nature and poor drafting of the law was a substantial factor, the court struck down the law in Troxel v. Granville in part because of the threat to parental rights securing this important liberty that is often not an issue in federal court cases.
Free Speech: The court in a splintered decision upheld a $1,000 political contribution limit in Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC (and some of you think my name is long!), though in the dissenting opinions it is noted that such limits just might be counterproductive in the end result of fair campaigns. I am inclined to agree, as well as wonder how limiting the support one can give to someone for office is not considered a major prohibition on free speech; a limit on political discourse that lies at the heart of the First Amendment. Perhaps a visit to Dean Heller's office might be in order.
Our next president will have the opportunity to pick at least three Supreme Court nominees, and if confirmed by the Senate, these new additions to the nation's highest court will hold the power to decide the political, legal and social direction of our country for the next 30 years. Something to think about when you enter the voting booth come Election Day!
Karl Neathammer is a former lay judge who writes occasionally for the Nevada Appeal.