Supreme Court of the United States

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What is the role of the Supreme Court in protecting civil liberties?

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The Supreme Court has the power to protect civil liberties to the extent that it upholds our rights as defined in the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments. If a law is passed that violates our civil liberties, or a public or private entity violates them, a suit can...

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The Supreme Court has the power to protect civil liberties to the extent that it upholds our rights as defined in the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments. If a law is passed that violates our civil liberties, or a public or private entity violates them, a suit can be brought to the courts. If the case makes its way to the Supreme Court and the court finds that a party is in violation of the Constitution, the offending party can be ordered to correct the situation or pay restitution. In fact, even when state constitutions protect civil liberties but fall short of the Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court can still force states to upheld civil liberties as described in the US Constitution. Additionally, barring another Supreme Court ruling or a constitutional amendment, the decisions of the Supreme Court are final. This makes it the most powerful part of government for protecting civil rights.

Many of the most high-profile Supreme Court cases have involved issues surrounding American civil liberties. Brown v Board of Education (1954) ensured all American children the right to a fair education. More recently, Obergefell v Hodges (2015) extended marriage rights to all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation. If you look at the most famous cases involving the Supreme Court, you will find that many of them center on issues of civil liberties.

This should not be construed to say that the Supreme Court has always been a champion of protecting everyone's rights. You will also find examples where people's fair rights were not protected, such as Dred Scott v Sanford (1857) or Plessy v Fergusson (1896). However, overall, the Supreme Court has been instrumental in being a powerful protector of civil liberties in the United States.

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It is perhaps less accurate to say that the Supreme Court protects civil liberties than to say that it determines the extent to which the Bill of Rights protects them. This is because the Court rules on cases that involve important questions surrounding civil liberties. There are many examples, but one would be its decision in Texas v. Johnson in which the Court ruled that burning an American flag was a form of political protest protected under the First Amendment.

In Miranda v. Arizona it ruled that evidence, even confessions, obtained from an accused person who had not been made aware of their rights was inadmissible in court. This decision broadened the scope of the civil liberties of the accused by requiring the police to adhere to procedures that protect them.

On the other hand, sometimes the Court delivers a more narrow interpretation of the liberties protected by the Constitution, thus restricting these liberties somewhat. In Schenck v. US, for example, the Court held that the federal government could restrict speech that posed a "clear and present danger" to the United States, thus defining the boundaries of the First Amendment.

In New Jersey v. T.L.O. the Court ruled that students did not have the same protections against search and seizure as they would have outside the school. In so doing, they established limits on the Fourth Amendment. So again, it is more accurate to say that the Court defines the extent of civil liberties. Sometimes it expands civil liberties through its decisions; sometimes it limits them.

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The Supreme Court plays an important role in protecting our civil liberties. When people believe their civil liberties have been violated, they can take their case to court. If the lower courts rule against a person, they can ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. There have been many instances where the Supreme Court has ruled that civil liberties have been violated. In Miranda v Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled that a person must be read his or her rights when arrested. If they aren’t read their rights, any statements made by a person can’t be used against that person in court. In Mapp v Ohio, the Supreme Court ruled that evidence couldn’t be used in a case if the evidence is improperly collected. In the Abington School District v Schempp case, the Supreme Court ruled that schools couldn’t have regular bible readings done in school.

The Supreme Court also protects our civil liberties by declaring acts of government unconstitutional. In the New York Times Co. v United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment to the Constitution protected the publication of the Pentagon Papers. President Nixon didn’t want these papers published, but the Supreme Court ruled otherwise. If Congress or a state legislature passes a law that violates the freedoms guaranteed to us in the Constitution, the Supreme Court may declare that law unconstitutional. The Brown v Board of Education case ruled that the separate but equal laws were unconstitutional as it applied to education.

The Supreme Court plays an important role in protecting our civil liberties.

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The Supreme Court plays an important part in protecting civil liberties. The Court is the institution that can overturn acts of the elected branches if it believes that these acts violate the Constitution.  In this capacity, the Court can try to prevent the elected branches from violating civil liberties.  An example of this occurred in Boumediene v. Bush, for example, when the Court struck down laws that suspended the right to habeas corpus for people who were deemed to be unlawful combatants in the war on terror.  When the Supreme Court takes actions like this, it is (arguably) fulfilling its role as a protector of civil liberties.

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