Role of Courts Supreme Court Cases

Article III of the U.S. Constitution outlines the scope of judicial power. Under Section 2, the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts may hear cases arising under the Constitution, federal laws, and treaties made under their authority, among other matters. With a few exceptions, the Supreme Court is limited to appellate jurisdiction, reviewing cases previously heard by other courts. Federal courts may hear only actual, ongoing cases or controversies, which means that someone bringing a claim must have “standing” to sue. In general, they must have suffered a concrete injury for which a court can provide an effective remedy.

One of the most important and frequently exercised powers of federal courts does not appear in the text of Article III. This is the power of judicial review. Barely a decade into its history, the Supreme Court asserted in Marbury v. Madison that it holds the power to determine whether a legislative or executive action is constitutional. Many of the most famous Supreme Court decisions have relied implicitly on the notion that the Court is the ultimate interpreter of the founding document.

On the other hand, the Court has developed a doctrine of judicial restraint in the area of “political questions.” The six factors outlined in Baker v. Carr largely define this doctrine, which is based on the idea that courts should remain aloof from politics. Thus, a federal court should decline to hear a case that presents an issue heavily laden with political implications.

Below is a selection of Supreme Court cases involving the role of courts, arranged from newest to oldest.

U.S. v. Texas (2023)

Author: Brett Kavanaugh

Federal courts cannot effectively order the executive branch to take enforcement actions against violators of federal law.

TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez (2021)

Author: Brett Kavanaugh

Only plaintiffs concretely harmed by a defendant's statutory violation have Article III standing to seek damages against that private defendant in federal court.

Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski (2021)

Author: Clarence Thomas

A request for nominal damages satisfies the redressability element necessary for Article III standing when a plaintiff's claim is based on a completed violation of a legal right.

Rucho v. Common Cause (2019)

Author: John Roberts

Partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.

Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins (2016)

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation. This does not mean, however, that the risk of real harm cannot satisfy the requirement of concreteness.

Hollingsworth v. Perry (2013)

Author: John Roberts

Article III standing demands that an actual controversy persist throughout all stages of litigation. More specifically, when a federal court declared unconstitutional a California proposition amending the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, the official proponents of the proposition did not have standing to defend its constitutionality.

Bond v. U.S. (2011)

Author: Anthony Kennedy

An individual had standing to challenge a federal law on the ground that it interfered with the powers reserved to states.

Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. (2007)

Author: Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

Generally, a federal taxpayer's interest in seeing that Treasury funds are spent in accordance with the Constitution is too attenuated to give rise to the kind of redressable “personal injury” required for Article III standing.

Massachusetts v. EPA (2007)

Author: John Paul Stevens

Since greenhouse gases fit within the definition of “air pollutant” under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has the statutory authority to regulate the emission of these gases from new motor vehicles. Also, a litigant to whom Congress has accorded a procedural right to protect their concrete interests can assert that right in federal court without meeting all the normal standards for redressability and immediacy.

DaimlerChrysler Corp. v. Cuno (2006)

Author: John Roberts

State taxpayers have no standing under Article III to challenge state tax or spending decisions simply by virtue of their status as taxpayers.

Dickerson v. U.S. (2000)

Author: William Rehnquist

Since Miranda is a constitutional decision of the Supreme Court, it may not be in effect overruled by an Act of Congress. More generally, while Congress has ultimate authority to modify or set aside rules of evidence and procedure that are not constitutionally required, it may not supersede Supreme Court decisions interpreting and applying the Constitution.

FEC v. Akins (1998)

Author: Stephen Breyer

The fact that a political forum may be more readily available when an injury is widely shared does not by itself automatically prevent standing in federal court.

Raines v. Byrd (1997)

Author: William Rehnquist

For standing, a plaintiff's complaint must establish that they have a personal stake in the alleged dispute and that the alleged injury suffered is particularized to them.

Nixon v. U.S. (1993)

Author: William Rehnquist

A lack of judicially manageable standards may strengthen the conclusion that there is a textually demonstrable commitment to a coordinate branch under the political question doctrine.

Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife (1992)

Author: Antonin Scalia

A plaintiff claiming only a generally available grievance about government, unconnected with a threatened concrete interest of their own, does not state an Article III case or controversy. (Standing requires an injury in fact that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant and that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.)

Allen v. Wright (1984)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

Federal courts may exercise power only in the last resort and as a necessity, and only when adjudication is consistent with a system of separated powers, and the dispute is traditionally thought to be capable of resolution through the judicial process.

Michigan v. Long (1983)

Author: Sandra Day O’Connor

If a state court decision indicates clearly and expressly that it is based on bona fide separate, adequate, and independent state grounds, the Supreme Court will not review the decision. Also, a search of the passenger compartment of an automobile, limited to those areas in which a weapon may be placed or hidden, is permissible if the police officer possesses a reasonable belief based on specific and articulable facts that, taken together with the rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the officer to believe that the suspect is dangerous and that the suspect may gain immediate control of weapons.

Goldwater v. Carter (1979)

Author: William Rehnquist

A question is political and non-justiciable when it involves the authority of the President in the conduct of foreign relations and the extent to which the Senate or the Congress is authorized to negate the action of the President.

U.S. v. SCRAP (1973)

Author: Potter Stewart

Standing is not confined to those who show economic harm, since aesthetic and environmental wellbeing are important ingredients of the quality of life in our society.

Linda R.S. v. Richard D. (1973)

Author: Thurgood Marshall

A private citizen lacks a judicially cognizable interest in the prosecution or non-prosecution of someone else.

Powell v. McCormack (1969)

Author: Earl Warren

Our system of government requires that federal courts on occasion interpret the Constitution in a manner at variance with the construction given the document by another branch. The alleged conflict that such an adjudication may cause cannot justify the courts' avoiding their constitutional responsibility.

Flast v. Cohen (1968)

Author: Earl Warren

Taxpayers had standing under Article III to invoke federal judicial power, since they alleged that tax money was being spent in violation of a specific constitutional protection against the abuse of legislative power.

Baker v. Carr (1962)

Author: William Brennan

Prominent on the surface of any case held to involve a political question is found a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department, a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it, the impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for non-judicial discretion, the impossibility of a court's undertaking independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government, an unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made, or the potentiality of embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question. More specifically, an equal protection challenge to a legislative apportionment is not a non-justiciable political question.

Cooper v. Aaron (1958)

Author: Charles Evans Whittaker, Earl Warren, Felix Frankfurter, Harold Hitz Burton, Hugo Black, John Marshall Harlan II, Tom C. Clark, William Brennan, William O. Douglas

State officials have a duty to obey federal court orders resting on the Supreme Court's considered interpretation of the Constitution. Also, state support of segregated schools through any arrangement, management, funds, or property cannot be squared with the Equal Protection Clause.

Reid v. Covert (1956)

Author: Hugo Black

Courts of law alone are given power to try civilians for their offenses against the United States.

Coleman v. Miller (1939)

Author: Charles Evans Hughes

In determining whether a question falls within the category of political non-justiciable questions, the appropriateness of attributing finality to the action of the political departments and the lack of satisfactory criteria for a judicial determination are dominant considerations.

Pacific States Tel. & Tel. Co. v. Oregon (1912)

Author: Edward Douglass White

The enforcement of the constitutional provision that the United States shall guarantee to every state a republican form of government is of a political character and exclusively committed to Congress, so it is beyond the jurisdiction of the courts.

Ex Parte Young (1908)

Author: Rufus Wheeler Peckham

While courts cannot control the exercise of the discretion of an executive officer, an injunction preventing the officer from enforcing an unconstitutional statute is not an interference with their discretion.

Missouri v. Illinois (1906)

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

The Supreme Court should only intervene to enjoin the action of one state at the demand of another state when the case is of serious magnitude, clearly and fully proved. Only such principles should be applied as the Court is prepared to maintain. (This case involved sewage-polluted water.)

Ex parte McCardle (1869)

Author: Salmon Portland Chase

While the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court is conferred by the Constitution, rather than acts of Congress, it is conferred with such exceptions and under such regulations as Congress may make. Therefore, when Congress enacts that the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction over final decisions of the Circuit Courts in certain cases, the act operates as a negation or exception of such jurisdiction in other cases. Moreover, the repeal of the act negates jurisdiction over the cases that it covers.

Georgia v. Stanton (1868)

Author: Samuel Nelson

A bill filed by one of the states to enjoin the Secretary of War and other executive officers from carrying into execution certain acts of Congress on the grounds that this would annul and abolish the existing government of the state calls for a judgment on a political question and cannot be entertained by the Supreme Court.

Mississippi v. Johnson (1867)

Author: Salmon Portland Chase

The legislative and executive departments cannot be restrained in their actions by the judicial department, although the acts of both when performed may be subject to its cognizance.

Ex parte Milligan (1866)

Author: David Davis

A citizen not connected with the military service and a resident in a state where the courts are open and in the proper exercise of their jurisdiction cannot, even when the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus is suspended, be tried, convicted, or sentenced otherwise than by the ordinary courts of law.

Ableman v. Booth (1859)

Author: Roger Taney

No state can authorize one of its judges or courts to exercise judicial power within the jurisdiction of another and independent government, including the federal government.

Luther v. Borden (1849)

Author: Roger Taney

The question of whether or not a majority of those persons entitled to suffrage voted to adopt a constitution cannot be settled in a judicial proceeding.

Cohens v. Virginia (1821)

Author: John Marshall

A case arising under the Constitution or laws of the United States is cognizable in the Courts of the Union, whoever may be the parties to that case.

Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816)

Author: Joseph Story

The appellate power of the United States must extend to state tribunals when they take cognizance of cases arising under the Constitution and the laws and treaties of the United States.

Fletcher v. Peck (1810)

Author: John Marshall

The question of whether a law is void for its repugnancy to the Constitution is a question of much delicacy, which ought seldom to be decided in the affirmative in a doubtful case. The opposition between the Constitution and the law should be such that the judge feels a clear and strong conviction of their incompatibility with each other.

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Author: John Marshall

It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is. If courts are to regard the Constitution, and the Constitution is superior to any ordinary act of the legislature, the Constitution rather than such ordinary act must govern the case to which they both apply. A law repugnant to the Constitution is void.

Calder v. Bull (1798)

Author: N/A (seriatim opinions)

The Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to determine that any law of any state legislature contrary to the Constitution of that state is void.

Hollingsworth v. Virginia (1798)

Author: Per Curiam

Since the Eleventh Amendment was constitutionally adopted, there cannot be exercised any jurisdiction in any case, past or future, in which a state was sued by the citizens of another state or by citizens or subjects of any foreign state.

Ware v. Hylton (1796)

Author: N/A (seriatim opinions)

A treaty cannot be the supreme law of the land (as provided by the Constitution) if any act of a state legislature can stand in its way. (In addition to establishing that treaties override state laws, this decision implicitly asserted the power of federal courts to find a state law unconstitutional.)

Glass v. The Betsey (1794)

Author: John Jay

Every district court of the United States possesses all the powers of a court of admiralty, whether considered as an instance or as a prize court.

Chisholm v. Georgia (1793)

Author: N/A (seriatim opinions)

A state is suable by citizens of another state. (This decision was superseded by the Eleventh Amendment.)

Hayburn's Case (1792)

Author: Per Curiam

In general, judges should be extremely cautious in not intimating an opinion in any case extrajudicially.

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