159. What is the Supreme Court? (English Vocabulary Lesson)



Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States has made some incredibly influential and consequential decisions. But what is the supreme court? What is its role in US politics? And why has the supreme court become so active?



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Vocabulary List

To overturned (v) – to change a legal decision

The Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision last month

Branch (n) – a part of something larger

The Supreme Court is part of the judicial branch of government

To enforce (v) – to make people obey a law

It isn’t easy for the police to enforce speed limits

To implement (v) – to put a plan, system, or law into operation

Congress refused to implement tax reforms

To interpret (v) – to decide what the intended meaning of something is

It is difficult to interpret the meaning of the statistics

Check (n) – rules intended to prevent one person or group from having too much power

We need effective checks on the power of the president

Veto (n) – an official power or right to refuse to accept or allow something

The president has the power of veto over any bill

Segregation (n) – the policy of keeping one group of people apart from another and treating them differently, especially because of race, sex, or religion

The system of racial segregation that used to exist in South Africa was called apartheid

To split (v) – to divide into two or more parts

The teacher split the students into three groups

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The US Supreme Court made one of their most influential legal decisions a few weeks ago by removing American women’s constitutional right to an abortion. Overnight, abortion became almost completely illegal in around half of American states.

I already recorded an episode on the Supreme Court and abortion – focusing on the Roe vs Wade debate – which I recommend you all listen to! But it seems as though the Supreme Court is not finished making major decisions. It has been suggested that a wide range of previous court decisions could be overturned in the next few months or years – from gun control legislation to the right to contraception.

Why has the US Supreme Court suddenly become so active? What are the powers or role of the Supreme Court? What could the future hold for US laws and politics?

Today, I’m going to investigate and try to explain the history and role of the Supreme Court. In doing so, I will also introduce some of the most important vocabulary, terms, and phrases to help you understand American politics. Actually, many of these terms are not just relevant to American politics, but governments around the world!

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What is the US Government?

Congress! Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

You’ve probably heard of the US Government before – it’s the people who make the decisions, laws, and policies that govern the most powerful and influential country in the world. But it is not really accurate to think about the US government as one group, one organisation. Instead, there are three separate parts, or branches, of US Government.

The United States constitution divides the power of the US government into three branches: the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch.

Legislative Branch

The verb to legislate means to make laws, and this is exactly the role of the legislative branch of government. In the US, the legislative branch of government is Congress, which consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The White House! Photo by Aaron Kittredge on Pexels.com

All national laws in America are written and debated by the legislative branch. Congress also has the power to confirm or reject the Presidents choices for judges or other positions. And, in theory, they are supposed to be the branch with the power to declare war (although this is no longer necessarily true…).

How is the legislative branch of government chosen? Every American citizen has the right to vote for the members of congress – both Senators and Representatives – and the people they elect take up roles in the legislative branch!

Executive Branch

The executive branch of government has the responsibility to carry out, execute, and enforce laws decided by Congress. Over years, the power and role of the executive branch has increased significantly, and now it is generally considered to be the most influential branch of government.

It is also the branch that you all will have heard of before. The executive branch includes the president, vice president, Cabinet, departments, agencies, and other organsiations designed to implement laws.

The President is the leader of the America – and currently is the Democrat Joe Biden. The President has the official roles of head of state, leader of the government, and Commander in Chief of the United States armed forces. In a nutshell, the laws are first made by Congress and then given to the President to implement and enforce them. It is the Presidents job to make sure that the laws are actually used across the country.

The President is supported by the Vice President. If the President passes away, falls ill, or is unable to continue their role, the Vice President takes over. The Vice President is also the deciding vote in the Senate, if there is a 50-50 tie in voting on a law.

In addition to the President and the Vice President (who are both elected by the American public) there is also the Cabinet. The Cabinet includes senior officials who advise the President and work as officials or leaders of different departments.

America is so big that the President can’t make every decision and implement every law by themselves. For this reason, there are hundreds of different agencies, departments, and committees who have the responsibility for certain laws and decisions. For example, the US Department of Education is responsible for education decisions, the US Department of State is responsible for international relations, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (or FBI) enforces laws and investigates crime.

Judicial Branch

The third, and often forgotten branch of the US government is the Judicial branch. The Judicial branch of government has the responsibility to evaluate laws. The federal courts of the US are all part of the judicial branch, with the Supreme Court being the most powerful, important, and influential organisation.

Supreme Court Justices

The judicial branch has the job of deciding or interpreting the meanings of laws, checking if laws violate the US constitution, and using these laws in individual cases. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the US, and they have the final decision over whether something is constitutional or not.

Members of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President and are then approved by the Senate. There are nine members of the court, and they serve as justices until they die, retire, or are removed.

Separation of powers

A common phrase you will hear if you are interested in the US politics is the separation of powers – and this is something common in a number of other countries as well.

The separation of powers means that the legislative branch, executive branch, and judicial branch of government must be kept completely separate. Each branch of government has their own separate powers and responsibilities, and in general is not allowed to use the powers of the other branches.

For example, the president cannot make laws themselves, congress cannot decide if a law is constitutional, and the Supreme Court doesn’t decide how to implement a law. Moreover, an individual should not be a member of more than one branch at the same time.

The purpose behind the separation of powers is to ensure that one branch of government cannot become too powerful – it stops the president from being able to rule the country like a King or dictator. The French political philosopher Montesquieu is often credited with giving the first and clearest explanation of the separation of powers. In 1748 he wrote, “when the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty….”

Most countries have some form of separation powers, but the UK is an example of a country without a strict separation of powers. In the UK, the three branches of government are much closer than in the US, and in the past were even closer. What do I mean?

Well, for example the Prime Minister of the UK is the head of executive. However, they are also a member of parliament and the leader of the majority party, meaning that they are also head of the legislature in some way.

Checks and balances

Although the US has a strict separation of powers, this does not necessarily mean that the three branches cannot influence each other. The US has a system known as checks and balances – the ability to limit the power and change acts by other branches. This is another way to stop one branch getting too powerful.

For example, while the US President is in charge of the armed forces, the Congress are in charge of declaring war, giving money to the armed forces, and signing peace treaties. While the executive branch is responsible to delivering laws, Congress decided how much money they can use. While Congress passes laws, the President can veto (in other words, say “no”). While laws are made and implemented by Congress and the President, the Supreme Court can decide if they are consistent with the constitution.  

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History of Supreme Court

The role of the Supreme Court has changed throughout the history of the USA. After a few decades of an undefined role, the power of judicial review was firmly established in an 1803 case called Marbury v Madison. In this case, it was confirmed that the both the US constitution was more important than any other law in the US, and that if there was a conflict between the constitution and a law it was the Supreme Court’s right to decide.

The role and power of the supreme court today dates from that decision 200 years ago. But is important to realise that the Supreme court is a product of the time – its role and influence depends a great deal on the cases it hears and the justices who were appointed. The court can only respond to the cases given to it, and its decisions therefore reflect the ideas, politics, and culture of that time.

In the 19th century, the Supreme Court decided that the US constitution was not designed to give rights to African Americans. The infamous case, called Dred Scott v Sandford, was heard by a Supreme Court made up mainly of justices from the slave owning south. 50 years later, the Supreme court gave another infamous decision – that public services could be “separate but equal.” This meant that segregation was basically legal. These decisions were a reflection of the ideas and beliefs of the time.

From the 1950s until the 1970s, the court entered a period known as the “rights revolution.” They ended segregation, gave protection minorities including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, extended protections for people arrested (like right to a lawyer), made abortion legal, ensured access to contraception, and ensured fair voting.

What has happened recently?

As I mentioned already, the court reflects its members and the political culture. It can only make decisions on cases presented to it (meaning it cannot seek out a case). In US history, the supreme court has both protected minorities and taken away their rights, encourages social change and rejected it, and both expanded and reduced the role of government. It really is dependent on who is in the court.

Recently, the current court has made a number of important and controversial decisions. They overturned Roe v Wade, effectively ending national rights to abortion, which made worldwide news. However, they have also made it easier for people to carry guns and weapons, changed the relationship between the church and the state so that religion may become even or powerful in the US, and restricted the power of executive agencies so that it will be almost impossible for America to pass environmental policies.

The Supreme Court has used its power to reshape American politics – and they are doing in the opposite way to the intention of President Joe Biden and the Democrat party. How did this happen?

Right now, the US has one of the most conservative courts in history. Out of 9 justices, 6 were appointed by Republican presidents, and three by Donald Trump. In essence, the court now has a conservative supermajority. For years, the court was split more evenly – generally 4 liberal justices, 4 conservative justices, and a swing justice who would have a variety of different opinions. However, with 6 conservatives, the court is now able to easily to make powerful decisions.

Furthermore, as the US is incredibly politically divided, with an increasing gap between “liberals” and “conservatives,” there are more and more important cases to be heard by the court. And as supreme court justices are appointed for life, the fact Trump could appoint 3 relatively young conservative justices will affect the Supreme Court for years to come!

What’s Next for the Supreme Court?

Joe Biden has recently appointed a new member of the court, replacing the retiring liberal justice Stephen Breyer with a new liberal justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. However, this will have little impact in changing the balance of the court.

And, after the summer break, the court will be making rulings on some other incredibly controversial cases. For example, they will decide whether States should have more power in elections; whether a business is allowed to discriminate against someone based on their sexuality; and whether race should be considered in university admissions. These decisions will also have major influence over US politics.

It is also interesting to know that the current US Supreme Court is incredibly unpopular, and so are their decisions. In May, a survey reported that the majority of Americans disapproved of the court – the first time in history. The percentage of Americans who have confidence in the court is the lowest since 1973 (according to Gallup).

Final Thought

On this episode of Thinking in English I have tried to examine, explain, and discuss the US Supreme Court and its role in the wider US government. In doing so, I have introduced a variety of important terms and vocabulary like the “separation of powers,” “checks and balances,” and “branches of government.”

Moreover, many of these terms and ideas can be applied to other countries legal and poltiical systems!

The US Supreme Court has long had a very influential role in some of the country’s most important decisions… and right now it seems more active than ever! Over the next few months, it is likely more politically significant decisions will also be made!

How about in your country? Is your country’s supreme court powerful and influential? What do you think of the US’s recent decisions?


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