While our founding fathers excluded everyone who was not a white, land-owning man from their idea of America, the system they created has been critical in the fight to build a more inclusive United States.
As any schoolhouse rock alum knows, the founding fathers established three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judiciary. The judiciary—aka. the court system—is meant to serve as an apolitical check on the other inherently more political branches of government. Its role is to act as a neutral body to ensure every law in our country follows the rules of the Constitution and Americans’ rights are not infringed upon.
In theory and in a perfect world, this system works, and it has worked in the past.
Our last line of defense and progress
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions establish the framework of American life as we know it today. The judicial system and specifically the Supreme Court are our last line of defense against bad laws. Throughout history, the Supreme Court has struck down laws that infringed on American’s rights.
It has also monumentally changed society through landmark rulings that pushed our laws forward like:
- Brown v. Board of Education – ending school segregation
- Griswold v. Connecticut – creating a right to privacy and legalizing birth control
- Tinker v. Des Moines – defining the right to free speech in public schools
- Roe v. Wade – protecting the right to an abortion
- Obergefell v. Hodges – guaranteeing the right to marry to same-sex couples
But the members of the judicial branch are human and still subject to bias. The justices themselves are nominated by elected officials with their own values and priorities to consider in shaping the court. This is to say that elections have even farther-reaching consequences because Supreme Court justices are lifetime appointments who will remain on the bench longer than the president that put them there is out of office.
There are times the Court has also held our country back, like in Shelby County v. Holder. The 2013 ruling struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a pivotal piece of the monumental legislation that protected communities of color from being subject to voter discrimination laws, like suppressing the Black vote through poll taxes or literacy tests. This decision has resulted in several attacks on voting rights in the modern era.
The judicial process matters
While final rulings are often what make the headlines, the Supreme Court’s decisions on which cases to hear provide context for what the future of law may look like in the United States. The justices review lower court decisions and determine if they should hear the appeal, or if they agree with the lower court’s ruling. As its name indicates, the Supreme Court’s decision reigns supreme and supersedes all other decisions regarding the case.
This is important to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization
The decision to hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case regarding a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban law, is an interesting one. The lower courts ruled the law unconstitutional under current precedent because it violates the viability threshold established by Roe v. Wade, or the point of gestation at which a fetus may be able to survive beyond the uterus. By adding the case to their schedule, the Supreme Court has indicated a real possibility that there is disconnect between how the lower court ruled and how the Supreme court would rule.
While it is possible the ruling could be reiterated by the Court, it is also possible for it to change its reasoning for that ruling or overturn the lower court’s ruling altogether. What will be the outcome of the Mississippi case? It’s hard to know. The bottom line is their decision to even hear this case raises some serious alarm among organizations and advocates championing reproductive health. The state of Mississippi has explicitly asked the court to overturn 50 years of precedent by overturning Roe v. Wade. If that is the case, or protections established under Roe are even partially dismantled, 36 million women of reproductive age in 26 states are at risk of losing access to abortion, including South Dakota.
What comes next?
Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization was heard before the newly cemented conservative majority court on December 1. The justices are reviewing the case with a decision expected next summer.. That means the future of reproductive rights is uncertain. The Supreme Court could follow the vision of our founding fathers to act as an apolitical check by asserting the Mississippi law is unconstitutional, or it could obliterate reproductive rights by ignoring precedent and playing political games with essential health care.
Not cowering in the uncertainty of this moment is difficult, but it is necessary.
Our future depends on our strength and resiliency to speak up and speak out. Our voices serve as our greatest weapon and the collective commitment to using our voices is how we harness the power of the people.
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