By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
The U.S. Supreme Court has persevered through American history. From the Constitutional Convention to the present day, it has remained a vital part of government. Justice Stephen G. Breyer has announced his retirement.
In the last several years, the U.S. Supreme Court—popularly abbreviated as SCOTUS for Supreme Court of the United States—has seen many retirements and new appointments. The previous presidency alone saw the appointment of Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Now, Justice Stephen G. Breyer has announced his retirement, paving the way for yet another change.
Throughout the SCOTUS’s history, it has presided as the highest court in the United States, making landmark decisions on divisive, hot-button issues. In his video series The History of the Supreme Court, Dr. Peter Irons, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego, details its history and some of its major appointments.
A Matter of Interpretation
Although the lines are blurry, the history of the Supreme Court can be divided into three rough periods.
“The first period began with the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and extended through World War I,” Dr. Irons said. “This period spanned more than a century, marked by conflicts over slavery and the national trauma of the Civil War. The second period extended from the 1920s through the Court’s leadership by Chief Justice Earl Warren.”
This second period included the Great Depression, World War II, and the 1954 SCOTUS ruling that the segregation of public schools violated the Constitution. Dr. Irons said that the third period in its history overlapped somewhat with the second, and was marked by the Court’s rulings in matters such as religion, criminal law, political protest, and abortion.
“Of course, these three periods in the Court’s history are not neatly divided and distinct,” he said. “But they provide us with very different approaches to the ways in which successive generations of Supreme Court justices have interpreted the Constitution, and have shaped judicial doctrines that [affected] the outcome of landmark cases.”
These doctrines may dominate one period of the Court’s history only to be amended or rejected in another. Often, the changes in these doctrines reflect the justices on the bench, hence the intense national focus on their appointment, as well as changes in society and politics outside the Court.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
One history-making change in judicial doctrine came about in what’s known as the Constitutional Revolution of 1937, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt added several liberal justices to the Supreme Court.
“Who sits on the Court, and the views they bring to the bench, is largely determined by who sits in the White House,” Dr. Irons said. “We have had conservative presidents—like William Howard Taft, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan—who named conservative justices. And we have had liberal presidents—like Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson—who placed liberal justices on the Court.”
More middle-of-the-road presidents like Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower have placed more centrist justices, as well.
Personality Goes a Long Way
Often, a Supreme Court justice will bring his or her personality to the Court and allow it to influence their reading of the Constitution, which can be for the benefit or detriment of the country. The Dred Scott decision in 1857 ruled that no Black person could be a citizen of the United States, with Chief Justice Roger Taney stating that Black Americans “have no rights which the white man is bound to respect.”
“I doubt whether Taney’s opinion would have been so dogmatic and uncompromising if he were not a dogmatic and uncompromising defender of slavery, with a background in Southern politics,” Dr. Irons said.
Much later, in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education ruled that school segregation violated the Constitution.
“Chief Justice Earl Warren based his opinion on the ‘feeling of inferiority’ that segregation produced in the ‘hearts and minds’ of Black children,” Dr. Irons said. “I doubt whether Warren’s opinion would have been so expansive in its reading of the Constitution, and so understanding of the impact of segregation, if he had not witnessed that impact on people like his own chauffeur, who was barred from sleeping in the same hotel that welcomed Warren during a visit to Civil War battlefields in Virginia.”
President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., has vowed to name Justice Breyer’s successor by the end of February.