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Is the US Supreme Court fit for purpose?

  • July 06, 2022

“This court has lost legitimacy. They have burned whatever legitimacy they may still have had after their gun decision, after their voting decision, after their union decision. They just took the last of it and set a torch to it with the Roe v. Wade opinion.”

Appearing on ABC News’ This Week programme, Senator Elizabeth Warren echoed criticisms voiced by fellow politicians, lawyers and campaigners after the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 ruling on abortion. 

As millions of women across America face losing their right to terminate pregnancies, many are also questioning whether the court is fit for purpose.

The court’s power

The Supreme Court dates back to 1789 and is the highest court in the US. As “the final arbiter of the law”, it acts as both “guardian and interpreter” of the national Constitution, according to the court’s official website

Most Americans are now “used to US Supreme Court rulings that bring big changes to American life”, said The New York Times’ German Lopez. These landmark rulings include the ending of racial segregation of students in public schools, in 1954; and the extension of the right to same-sex marriage to all US states, in 2015.

But the court’s power “is strange in a global context”, wrote Lopez. The “highest-level courts in other rich democracies” tend to “face sharper limits on their decisions”. By contrast, the US Supreme Court’s structure “allows for few checks on the justices’ power”.

A ‘transformed’ court

The overturning of Roe v. Wade was evidence of “the historic reverberations of Donald Trump’s one term in the Oval Office”, said Bloomberg

Although there is no specification about how many justices can sit on the court at one time, that number has stayed at nine since 1869, according to Britannica. Justices are appointed for life and when a seat is vacated – owing to death or retirement – the sitting president has the power to appoint the replacement.

America’s 46th President “transformed” the Supreme Court, said The New Yorker. Trump appointed three justices during his four years in office, creating “a six-member conservative majority”.

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