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Judiciary, Influences on the Supreme Court

new justice, President Abraham Lincoln, agricultural economy, personal background, American Civil War

Despite its authority on paper, the Supreme Court is influenced by certain factors. When a vacancy occurs because of death, retirement, or impeachment of a Supreme Court justice, the president appoints a new justice who then must be confirmed by a majority of the Senate. As a result, the president and the Senate can affect the composition and sentiment of the court. For example, the court changed dramatically during the American Civil War (1861-1865), when President Abraham Lincoln appointed five justices to a body that had been controlled before the war by Southerners. Individual justices are also influenced by personal background, political views, relationships with other judges, and even by the clerks who assist them.

The Solicitor General, who represents the federal government at the Supreme Court, also shapes the courtís agenda. As the chief government lawyer in cases before the courts of appeals, the Solicitor General decides which cases the government should ask the court to review and what the governmentís position will be in them. The Solicitor Generalís power to petition the court to review cases is important because the Supreme Court can rule only on cases that are brought before it. The court cannot simply choose to examine a law or case of its own accord.

Finally the Supreme Court is influenced by what it believes the majority of American people support. This influence of public opinion was evident in the 1930s, when a conservative court at first opposed the agricultural policies of President Franklin Rooseveltís New Deal. These polices, which curtailed farm production in an effort to stabilize the agricultural economy, expanded the power of the federal government by giving it a much larger role in regulating agriculture and commerce. After Roosevelt won substantial majorities in the presidential elections of 1936 and 1940, however, the same justices accepted legislation similar to what they had earlier called unconstitutional. Another example is the 1972 decision Roe v. Wade, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion during the first six months of pregnancy. This ruling is often seen as a judicial response to a significant change in the peopleís attitudes toward women and their right to privacy.

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