Why every student should pay attention to the Supreme Court

Sam Kohl ’22

While America’s highest court might seem divorced from students’ everyday lives, the opposite is true: the court’s decisions have direct, tangible impacts on all of us.

     Take an easy example: college admissions. Around this time, Sixth Formers apply to colleges and Fifth Formers begin the process themselves. Can the college that you are applying to take your race into account when making a decision? Yes, according to the landmark case Grutter v Bollinger. In this case, Barbara Grutter, an applicant to the University of Michigan’s law school, was denied admission. She filed suit, claiming that the university had discriminated against her based on race and that such discrimination violated the 14th amendment and 1964 Civil Rights act. The court disagreed in a 5-4 split opinion, finding that the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause did not prohibit this practice, as it furthered a compelling interest: diversity. Grutter v Bollinger, Regents of the University of California v Bakke, and Fisher v University of Texas have all defined the modern landscape of college admissions. While the issue is not yet fully litigated, the court’s prior and future decisions will shape the way college admissions can work.

Historically, looking to the court provides a barometer for our nation’s changing values and circumstances.

     Another example is found in an unlikely place: video games. In 2005, the California state legislature passed AB 1179. This law banned the sale of “violent” video games to anybody under the age of 18. This law was quickly challenged in the district court, which ruled that the law violated the First Amendment. On appeal, the ninth circuit agreed with the district court, deeming it unconstitutional on first amendment grounds. Dissatisfied with the result, then-Governor Schwarzenegger filed a writ of certiorari to the supreme court, asking them to review the decision. The court, agreeing with both lower-court decisions, said that the law violated the first amendment, comparing video games to other mediums of speech in the case Brown v Entertainment Merchants Association. While many stores still require a customer to be 18, a government requirement is illegal, thanks to this opinion. This decision also likely protected other modern forms of speech, for if video games were not constitutionally protected, other cultural products could be restricted as well.

The Supreme Court in Winter 1939 – public domain photo by Harris Ewing, via Wikimedia Commons

     These cases are just two examples of how the court affects a student’s life. There are many other issues I didn’t even touch on, such as school desegregation, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion cases. 

     You should pay attention to the court not just because it affects you, but because it affects our nation in profound ways, currently and historically.

     The list of important cases in our nation’s history is long, but let’s turn to a more current one first: California v Texas. This case, being argued on November 10, will decide the fate of the Affordable Care Act, a law providing tens of millions with healthcare. Knowing the context of cases such as these can bring clarity to other governmental decisions. After the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Senate Republicans worked extremely quickly to fill her vacant seat with circuit judge Amy Coney Barrett. The Republicans want Barrett on the court to rule favorably on any election problems and the aforementioned healthcare case. She was critical of the previous decision regarding Obamacare (NFIB v Sebelius) and is likely to rule the individual mandate unconstitutional and maybe even the entire law.

     Historically, looking to the court provides a barometer for our nation’s changing values and circumstances. Take, for example, two famous cases: Plessy v Ferguson and Brown v Board of Education. Plessy ruled segregation constitutional, a repugnant moment in our nation’s history. Yet only 60 years later, a unanimous Warren court found the exact opposite to be true: segregation violates the 14th amendment’s’ equal protection clause, as it is inherently unequal. In 1973, Maryland became the first state to officially ban same-sex marraiges. 42 years later, in the landmark decision Obergefell v Hodges, the supreme court declared such bans unconstitutional; same-sex couples could now marry in all 50 states with federal protection.

     The court isn’t as glamorous as the executive branch. Oral arguments are less entertaining than presidential debates and justices tend to be reserved rather than outgoing. 

     Nevertheless, knowledge of the court and its proceedings are vital to understanding the world around you.