Supreme Court, United States

Functions

The Supreme Court has two fundamental functions. On the one hand, it must interpret and expound all congressional enactments brought before it in proper cases; in this respect its role parallels that of the state courts of final resort in making the decisive interpretation of state law. On the other hand, the Supreme Court has power (superseding that of all other courts) to examine federal and state statutes and executive actions to determine whether they conform to the U.S. Constitution. When the court rules against the constitutionality of a statute or an executive action, its decision can be overcome only if the Constitution is amended or if the court later overrules itself or modifies its previous opinion. The decisions are not confined to the specific cases, but rather are intended to guide legislatures and executive authority; thereby they mold the development of law. Thus, in the U.S. governmental system the Supreme Court potentially wields the highest power.

The Supreme Court, however, has found many constitutional limitations on its powers, and has voluntarily adopted others so as not to interfere unduly with the other branches of government or with the states. Though there are some notable exceptions, the court has a standing policy of eschewing political disputes, i.e., issues that are considered to be policy matters of legislative or executive authorities. In 1962 the court, over protests that it was entering a "political thicket," ruled in Baker v. Carr that the legislatures of several states must correct imbalances in representation between rural and urban areas. The court rarely attempts to infringe upon the power of the President over foreign affairs. Self-imposed restraints, observed only intermittently, include consideration of a constitutional issue only if the case cannot be considered on other grounds, and the formulation of constitutional decisions in the narrowest terms.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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