When I think about the Supreme Court, I always conjure up an image of all the solemn-faced justices standing in their black robes, in a perfect row on the steps of their multi-columned Washington, D.C. — there to protect the Constitution of the United States of America.
I mean, the Constitution was written in the late-1780s, when everyday life in America was extraordinarily different than it is today.
I mean, really different.
There were only horses and carriages to get people from this place to that — or they took a boat or simply walked.
A 2-mile excursion was a big deal.
No cellphones, no computers, no paved highways, no electricity, no indoor plumbing.
Everything was slow and steady, totally removed from a typical day in 2021.
Oh, they had things like smallpox, yellow fever, dysentery, diphtheria, influenza, scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough, mumps, typhus and typhoid fever to worry about.
Even COVID-19 doesn’t hold a candle to the diseases Americans faced in the 1780s, when the Constitution was enshrined as the law of the land.
That was America back at our founding. They saw things in a different light than we do today.
Every Supreme Court from our inception to May 1, 2021, has to take what they find in the words to the U.S. Constitution in the times in which it was written, and apply it to what they see today.
No easy job, that.
In fact, I think they have a much tougher job than any other in American government — to look back to not just words on a page, but to intent and getting into the brilliant minds that wrote and fashioned our Constitution, and see how they apply to situations they are called upon to rule in today’s complex digital world.
Aside from fundamental Supreme Court decisions like Marbury v. Madison, Roe v. Wade and Dred Scott v. Sanford, there were a small handful of others that were made over our nation’s history that very much impact us today.
In 1919, in Schenck vs. United States, the issue before the high court was this: is certain speech, including the sending of anti-war pamphlets to drafted men made in wartime, deemed to be in violation of the Espionage Act, protected by the First Amendment?
The court ruled that although the defendant would have been able to state his views during ordinary times, that in certain circumstances (World War I), there were limits on the First Amendment.
The Schenck decision created the “clear and present danger” test, meaning speech from an individual can be restricted if it presents a clear and present danger to the nation.
It brought about the metaphor of falsely yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater — and rules that some speech can be restricted and outside the boundaries of free speech guaranteed in the Constitution.
That, of course, directly applies to today’s political climate.
In Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, the question before the high court was, do racially segregated public schools violate the Equal Protection Clause in the Constitution?
In a unanimous Court ruling, they overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, and held that state laws requiring or allowing racially segregated schools does indeed violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
They famously stated in their opinion, that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The landmark decision laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement in America, and for integration across the country.
In the 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright decision, the issue before the Court was: does the Constitution require any individual charged with a felony, but unable to pay for a lawyer, be guaranteed the free assistance of legal counsel?
The Court ruled unanimously that the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution’s right to assistance of counsel applies to criminal state trials, and that lawyers in criminal court are necessities — and not luxuries.
The decision effectively expanded the public defender system across all the states.
And finally, in 1969’s Tinker v. Des Moines, the court was asked: does the First Amendment prohibit public school officials from barring students from wearing black armbands to symbolize anti-war (Vietnam) political protest?
The Supreme Court ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech … at the schoolhouse gate.”
In the ruling, the Court held that students’ speech could only be prohibited if it actually disrupted the educational process.
They found there was no evidence of such disruption, and the school was in violation of the First Amendment and freedom of speech.
How do you apply laws that were written when the justices arrived at the high court in horse-drawn carriages, and not black limousines?
Not something that is done easily — or lightly.