Author: Dr. Emily Stacey of Rose State College
It was a shock, but not surprising, that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September after a battle with cancer. The news of her death spread quickly across the country and the politics of the Supreme Court began.
The Supreme Court is an essential part of American Government curriculum. It is concerned with institutions and how they function within the democratic system. The politics of appointing justices to the court is rarely covered, which is likely because it is rare.
My students are the least informed about the Supreme Court when they join the American Government. They are often surprised when I go on and on about the importance of the Supreme Court in understanding the modern interpretation of the Constitution.
Students are shocked to discover that the justices on Court are not accountable to the citizens and that the citizens do not have a direct say in the placements of judges on the benches.
Until the Court takes on a controversial case or there is an open seat, many Americans ignore the Court. It’s an important part of our democratic fabric, and students need to understand that it is not apolitical (although this should be).
Here are some things to remember when covering the Supreme Court for your Political Science courses.
Explain the role of the Justices.
This topic is often covered in the chapter on Judiciary. Justices do more than just make decisions and give opinions.
Many of our former and current justices have been popular culture icons, such as Antonin Scalia or the Notorious RBG, who was well-known for his scathing dissents and became a hero of the conservative left in America.
There are some limitations on what a justice can advocate in public. Many justices have relatives who are involved in partisan politics. It can be difficult for many to distinguish the politics of one person from the public figure (e.g. Clarence Thomas and Virginia Thomas).
Remind students that justices don’t have to be held accountable for the president who placed them on the bench (or their party).
It is easy to imagine that the Supreme Court justices who were made would be grateful for the opportunity to serve as judges and would therefore be open to the political views of the president who appointed them to the court.
It is important to remember that the United States has a high degree of judicial independence. The Supreme Court justices will often rule in different ways on different cases that could or might not have an impact on politics. Partisan preferences are not to be considered by the justices. Decisions and opinions should be based upon facts and the application of law, not Republican vs. Democrat.
Pay attention to what your presidential candidates say about potential candidates for the Court.
This is my most important point as a professor. The only way Americans can participate in the selection of Supreme Court judges is through presidential elections. It is disheartening to see debates but hear nothing about the Supreme Court or any potential vacancies until it becomes a reality.
Americans must insist that their presidential candidates communicate the importance of the Court to our democracy. They should also inform us about the kind of people they would nominate to these critical positions in their lifetimes.
During the Supreme Court session on related topics, assign court cases to students.
I know, I’m sorry–we are political scientists and like the tried-and-true. Brown vs. The Board of Education and Roe vs. Wade are classics. These cases aren’t as attractive to our students as they are for us.
Your students should be assigned new cases on topics relevant to the democracy in which they live. These could include Citizens United v. F.E.C. (2010); Obergefell, v. Hodges (2015) and McGirt, v. Oklahoma (2020). Students will be able to better understand the Court’s relevance by applying contemporary cases to the concepts and topics they are exposed to in the course.
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