The most prominent role of the U.S. Supreme Court is judging the constitutionality of laws. That role is not prescribed by the U.S. Constitution. It was not authorized by the U.S. Congress. The Supreme Court awarded itself that role in 1803 in the legal case Marbury v. Madison. Since the authority to overrule the U.S. Congress is not established by the Constitution nor by law enacted by Congress, the role could be withdrawn by constitutional amendment or by an act of Congress.
Supreme Court members are appointed for life. That would seem to prevent court members from being unduly influenced by a need to stand for re-election or re-appointment or to lay a basis for a subsequent job. However, the concept is flawed because it also means that Supreme Court members are not accountable for their decisions.
Some Supreme Court decisions have been controversial. Some have clearly been wrong if you believe in a civil and just society. Dissatisfaction with Supreme Court decisions has produced seven attempts to change the philosophy of the court by changing the number of members on the court.
Some Supreme Court decisions that were not compatible with American ideals and American democracy include the following.
Slavery. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of slavery in several decisions, the most infamous being Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857.
Racial segregation. The Supreme Court held in Plessy v. Ferguson in an 1896 decision that separate but equal facilities for racial segregation was constitutional.
Eugenics (forced sterilization). In 1927, the Supreme Court held that forced sterilization of women was constitutional in Buck v. Bell.
Child labor. The U.S. Congress adopted legislation prohibiting movement of goods across state lines if those goods were produced by children under age 14 or under age 16 if the child worked more than 60 hours per week. The Supreme Court held the law unconstitutional in United States v. Darby Lumber Company in 1941, thus upholding the constitutionality of child labor.
Freedom of speech. In 1989, the Supreme Court held in Texas v. Johnson that desecrating (burning) the American flag is constitutional freedom of speech. That decision overturned laws in 48 states. In 2010, the Supreme Court held, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that spending money for political purposes is constitutional freedom of speech. In 2012, the Supreme Court made it constitutional for a person to lie about military service and decorations. The case arose because a person had falsely claimed to have been in military service and to have been awarded the Medal of Honor. We cannot work with each other without trust. Democratic government cannot function without citizen trust. Lies destroy trust.
Child punishment. The current Supreme Court decided in Jones v. Mississippi in April 2021, that sentencing a juvenile (child) to life in prison without possibility of parole is constitutional.
Abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that women have a constitutional right to elect to abort a pregnancy. This year, 2021, the Supreme Court has opted to review Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This court will review a Mississippi law that was apparently written to specifically subvert the right conveyed by Roe v. Wade. Last year, 2020, four prominent opinion polls indicated 2:1 support for Roe v. Wade. The Catholic Church has a long-standing aversion to birth control. Six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic.
It is clear that some Supreme Court decisions are not easily decided. But it is not so clear why a small number of unelected people with life tenure who are not accountable for their decisions should be able to overturn the laws made by the 535 elected members of congress who can be held accountable.
Jack Stevenson, who served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee and in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently, the retiree reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and writes commentary for community newspapers.