Order Political Science Report

Order Political Science Report
Politics in Action FINDING JUSTICE IN THE SUPREME COURT
Jason Pepper, a meth addict and drug dealer, got lucky after he was arrested in 2004. A sympathetic judge gave him a fraction of the prison time he could have received and, more importantly, sent him to a place where he got extensive drug treatment. He turned his life around, attended college, suc-ceeded at a good job, and got married. Then his luck ran out. A federal appeals court held that his sentence was too lenient under federal sentencing rules and ordered him back to prison in 2009.
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His luck turned again, however, as the U.S. Supreme Court chose his appeal from the thousands it receives each year. On December 6, 2010, the day of the oral argument on Pepper’s case (there are no trials in the Supreme Court), his attorneys walked up the steep steps of the Supreme Court building, the impressive “Marble Palace” with the motto “Equal Justice Under Law” engraved over its imposing columns. The justices, clothed in black robes, took their seats at the bench in front of a red velvet curtain. The attorneys for each side had just 30 minutes to present their cases, including time for interruptions by justices with questions. When the attorneys’ time was up, a discreet red light went on over their lectern, and they immediately stopped talking.
That was the end of the hearing, but not the end of the process. Months passed as the justices deliberated and negotiated an opinion. On March 2, 2011, the Court ruled that the appeals court had erred and that the sentencing guidelines were advisory, not mandatory. Moreover, it declared that judges should consider all available evidence, such as Pepper’s exemplary change in lifestyle, to determine the appropriate punishment. Pepper had won his case (Pepper v. United States). Equally important, in clarifying the rules that guide judges as they try to set sentences that both comport with national norms and ensure justice is done in individual cases, the Court’s decision became a precedent that gave federal judges more leeway to provide second chances to the criminals who come before them.
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In Pepper’s case, the Supreme Court decided the meaning of an act of Congress, which had established the sentencing rules. In other cases, it may decide the meaning of the Constitution and even overrule the decisions of elected officials. Despite the trappings of tradition and maj-esty, however, the Court does not reach its decisions in a political vacuum. Instead, it and other courts work in a context of political influences and considerations, a circumstance that raises important questions about the role of the judiciary in the U.S. political system.
The federal courts pose a special challenge to American democracy. Although it is common to elect state judges, the president nominates federal judges to their positions—for life. The Framers of the Constitution purposefully insulated federal judges from the influence of public opinion. How can we reconcile powerful courts populated by unelected judges with American democracy? Do they pose a threat to majority rule? Or do the federal courts actually function to protect the rights of minorities and thus maintain the type of open system necessary for democracy to flourish?
The power of the federal courts also raises the issue of the appropriate scope of judicial power in our society. Federal courts are frequently in the thick of policymaking on issues ranging from affirmative action and abortion to physician-assisted suicide and health care policy. Numerous critics argue that judges should not be actively involved in determining public policy—that they should leave policy to elected officials, focusing instead on settlement of routine disputes. On the other hand, advocates of a more aggressive role for the courts emphasize that judicial decisions have often met pressing needs—especially needs of the politically or economically powerless—left unmet by the normal processes of policymaking. For example, we have already seen the leading role that the federal courts played in ending legally supported racial segregation in the United States. To determine the appropriate role of the courts in our democracy, we must first understand the nature of our judicial system.

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