Civics for Citizens – The Judicial Branch

As the 2018 Midterm Election rapidly approaches, some exciting voting rights work is developing through Supreme Court cases on gerrymandering and voter roll purges. That’s why we’re devoting the next issue of our Civics for Citizens series to the Judicial Branch. While many of us can contact our elected representatives to voice our opinions on issues, events, legislation, and more, the Judicial Branch is more removed from our everyday lives. Some states elect judges to the bench at the state and local levels, while federal judges are appointed by the President and Congress. Even though the Judicial Branch may not be directly influenced by the people, you can still engage with it and get involved through elections and education. Let’s learn a bit more about the judiciary and their responsibilities to the American people.

While there are judiciaries at all levels of government, the focus of this blog will be on the Federal Judicial Branch and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of the United States, commonly referred to as SCOTUS, is the highest court in the land. Supreme Court Justices and other federal judges are nominated by the President and, after attending hearings and answering questions concerning their fitness for the role, are confirmed by the Senate. There are currently nine justices on the Supreme Court, a tradition that has held since 1869, though is not regulated or mandated by the Constitution. SCOTUS is made up of a Chief Justice, currently the Honorable John G. Roberts, and eight Associate Justices. Justices and federal judges, unlike elected officials, have no terms and can remain on the bench until resignation, death, or impeachment and conviction by Congress. This is meant to protect justices, judges, and their rulings from politics and political pressures.

SCOTUS and other federal courts are charged with interpreting the law and the Constitution and applying those interpretations to individual cases. Most cases heard by SCOTUS are generally appellate in nature, meaning cases are adjudicated by lower courts and continually challenged until they reach the Supreme Court. The Constitution also designates SCOTUS to hear cases of inter-state issues and cases involving diplomats and Ambassadors. While SCOTUS receives several thousand applications of cases wishing to be heard, the Supreme Court Justices only hear and rule on a small percentage of those cases.  

In 2018, the Supreme Court will rule on several major cases related to voting. Gerrymandering, the process of manipulating district boundaries to favor a party or group of individuals, is under consideration in three separate cases at the Supreme Court. In Gill v. Whitford, SCOTUS heard arguments concerning the topic of partisan gerrymandering as it relates to the redistricting plan created by the Republican-led state legislature in Wisconsin. A ruling, in this case, will provide guidance on how to measure partisan gerrymandering as well as whether or not gerrymandering is justiciable. In Benisek v. Lamone, SCOTUS is evaluating arguments on a case of gerrymandering by a Democratic legislature in Maryland. There the Supreme Court must rule on claims of violations of the First Amendment. Out of Texas comes Abbott v. Perez, a case involving racial gerrymandering. While each gerrymandering case at the Supreme Court has contextual and theoretical nuances, two overarching questions investigate what is SCOTUS’s role in evaluating gerrymandering issues and whether there is a legal framework to determine when courts should get involved in gerrymandering issues.

The Supreme Court also heard arguments for Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, a case contesting the processes used for voter list maintenance in Ohio. SCOTUS will rule on whether or not the current practices in Ohio violate two federal laws, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002. In Ohio, voter list maintenance occurs to keep things accurate and up-to-date, as permitted by federal laws with some stipulations. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 both prohibit the removal of a voter from the eligible registered voters list solely for not voting, though these laws permit list maintenance. A secondary trigger used to launch an inquiry, if an individual has changed address, is to review whether or not an individual has voted in the previous two years and send a letter asking for confirmation. Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute investigates whether the aforementioned laws are violated if the practice is a secondary method.

The Judicial Branch has a long and important history in the United States in deciding and evaluating important social, political, and economic issues. From interpreting the meaning of the First Amendment to removing protections under the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court impacts the lives of Americans every day. While citizens cannot directly choose Supreme Court Justices or federal judges, participation in democracy through voting and expressing opinions to elected officials allows the American people to engage with one of the most important institutions in the United States government. You can also look back at the previous installment of Civics for Citizens to learn more about the Executive Branch.

About the Author

Nicole Costa is one of Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere Program Managers. She graduated from the College of the Holy Cross where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science with a Peace and Conflict Studies interdisciplinary concentration. Nicole previously worked in Student Services at Seton Hall University where she advised student leaders on campus community development.