By Kelsi Peace, Features Editor
In the wake of the 2006 elections, Americans were left looking at the legislative branch of government and either rejoicing for the change or wringing their hands at the defeat.
And eyes turned inquisitively to the executive branch as questions rose, once again, about the war and, in general, what exactly a legislature with a democratic majority will mean for the Republican president. In all the partisan hullabaloo, monumental issues in the third branch of government Ð oh yes, the judicial branch Ð are often overlooked. America needs to regard the Supreme Court with the unrelentingly critical eye with which it watches the president and the legislature Ð after all, while the nation buzzes about the rise and fall of the political parties, the Court is meeting, quietly hearing cases. And these decisions carry so much more weight than whether to ban partial birth abortion Ð they set precedents, determine jurisdiction and interpret the U.S. Constitution.
As a staunch supporter of strict constitutionalist judges, I say it is vital to watch the Courts. Disregarding the judicial branch in today’s government is a mistake Ð judges make decisions that will profoundly affect the nation.
The Supreme Court issued its first full opinion for the 2006-2007 term on Nov. 13, ruling in a 5-4 decision that ‘the factor (k) instruction is consistent with the constitutional right to present mitigating evidence in capital sentencing proceedings.’ ‘Factor k’ is the instruction the judge gives to the jury before the verdict is presented, in which he informs the jury to consider ‘any other circumstance which extenuates the gravity of the crime even though it is not a legal excuse for the crime,’ according to the Court’s written opinion. In the Supreme Court case Ayers v. Belmontes, this meant that the jury could consider mitigating evidence from prison chaplains and sponsors saying that Belmontes had turned to Christianity and would lead a productive life if released. The case was a capitol punishment case. The decision not only upheld the jury’s verdict, (Belmontes received the death penalty) but also determined the Court’s interpretation of rights given those on trial for capital punishment.
In October, the court granted certiorari to cases over patent-infringement, actions of police officers and individualized education programs. When these cases are heard, they will determine more than simply who is in the wrong. For example, a decision on how police officers are regulated in high-speed chases offers implications for how police officers are regulated in other situations as well, which may mean a great deal to you the next time you glace in your rearview mirror and see those glaring red and blue lights.
And there are the ever-present ‘hot-button’ issues. The Court heard arguments surrounding the partial-birth abortion ban in the Gonzales v. Carhart case at the beginning of the month. The Court, with two new justices appointed by President Bush, just might have a different answer than the Court in 2000, which struck down another partial-birth abortion ban five votes to four in 2000. Again, a decision from the Court says more than when government decides life begins Ð it will determine if (and how) the justices will legislate from the bench, reveal the role precedent will play in the Court’s decisions and foreshadow how the Court will respond in the face of controversial issues. This won’t be the first tough case the Courts will face this year.
While the Democrats were gaining control of Congress and Bush was defending the war, the Supreme Court was beginning important cases very much out of the spotlight.
I hope America is aware. Justices may be appointed, but they can still be held accountable. Stay aware. The first three words of the U.S. Constitution are ‘We the people.’ What are the people saying?