I wrote at the beginning of this year that the real battle in U.S. politics would not be over issues of social security, taxes or health reform. I said that the real conflict would take place over possible changes on the U.S. Supreme Court and the balance likely to emerge as a result of these changes.
The conflict officially began with last week’s unexpected retirement of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. In her brief announcement, O’Connor said that she has decided to retire and that her retirement will take effect after the appointment of a successor by President Bush and approval by the Senate.
O’Connor is one the two female Supreme Court justices (the other is Ruth Bader Ginsburg). O’Connor was appointed by the late President Ronald Reagan in 1981, and her appointment was approved by a vote of 90 to 0.
She is a high-caliber and a highly-esteemed justice who has played a critical balancing role on important and controversial cases. Her retirement will cause a shift in the liberal-conservative balance, and also in the balance of the sexes; hence, it is evident today in upcoming months, the selection of her successor will top the U.S. political agenda. That is why I deem it necessary to reiterate some useful information on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution and federal law. The court is comprised of one chief justice and nine associate justices. The court’s justices are appointed for life by the President (or until they voluntarily retire) and are never relieved of their duties.
The Supreme Court functions as an appellate court for federal courts at lower levels, and for state appellate courts, if federal law is involved. Moreover, the court serves as an authority on lawsuits that involve foreign representatives, ambassadors, ministers, consuls or when Nations are parties. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court earns $171,500 per annum and the associate justices earn $164,100.
In general, the Supreme Court deals with three types of case: Cases between U.S. States, cases that require interpreting federal law, and cases that involve interpreting the Constitution.
If voting is tied, the lower court decision stands. In every lawsuit, the justices who remain in the minority generally write a statement of opposition and explain their views.
The current chief justice is William H. Rehnquist, who is undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer. The associate justices are: Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas, and Sandra Day O’Connor.
The Supreme Court reflects the general liberal-conservative political balance of the United States. The composition of the court today favors the conservatives, since there are five conservative members against four liberals. In the wake of O’Connor’s retirement, this sensitive political balance will shift 100% in favor of the conservatives.
Besides O’Conner’s Departure, it is more or less certain that Chief Justice Rehnquist will also soon seek retirement, due to illness and old age.
There is also no doubt whatsoever that as soon as Rehnquist announces his retirement, President George W. Bush will appoint another justice that will tow Bush’s political line. Again – without any doubt – these appointments will open the way to heated debate and widespread political disputes in Congress.
The real conflict has now begun …