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The U.S. Supreme Court can be thought of as the last word in both legislative and policy disputes. As the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court is charged with determining the constitutionality of lower court rulings. It is where the most serious civil and voting rights disputes, labor and employment rules, and federal statutes go for final settlement. Supreme Court decisions in the past have determined the Duty of Fair Representation through Steele v. Louisville & N.R.R., and representation during disciplinary hearings in NLRB v. J.Weingarten. Recent Supreme Court decisions have set precedents on such issues as photo identification requirements for voters, FMLA protection for public employees and the rights of detainees.
One decision – Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (January 2010) – has had a huge impact on federal elections, so much so that the current Republican majority in the U.S. House and in state legislatures could be viewed as a direct result of this case. In Citizens United, the Ronald Reagan- and George W. Bush-appointed majority of justices ruled that the federal government cannot limit the amount of money corporations spend to influence elections. This ruling overturned Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which limited spending in state elections by corporations. While corporations still cannot give contributions directly to candidates, they are allowed to spend unlimited amounts to affect the outcome of elections. The enormous infusion of corporate cash which resulted from this policy shift, including donations from foreign-controlled corporations and from wealthy people around the world, flooded the airwaves during the 2010 election. It should be noted that Citizens United similarly freed labor unions to spendlimitless amounts of money to influence elections. Of course, unions have nowhere near the financial resources available to our adversaries.
The Supreme Court reconvenes on the first Monday of October each year and usually continues in session through June. The Supreme Court receives and discards about 5,000 cases annually. Most of these are dismissed following a quick decision which confirms that the subject matter is either improper or insufficiently important to warrant review by the full court. Cases are heard “en banc,” which means by all the justices sitting together in open court. The court decides about 150 cases of great national importance and interest every year, and about three-fourths of these decisions are announced in full published opinions. The Supreme Court is located across the street from the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington. The sitting justices consist of one appointed by Ford, two appointed by Reagan, two by Clinton, two by George W. Bush and two by President Barack Obama. Their ages range from Justice Ruth Ginsburg at 77, to the newest and youngest justice, Elena Kagan, who is 50.
The nine justices serving on the Supreme Court can be divided five to four, conservative to moderate or pro-employer to pro-worker. This is the voting pattern that is reflected in many of their decisions, from Bush v. Gore, which settled the 2000 election in favor of George Bush, to Garcetti v. Ceballos, which held that public employees lose their right to freedom of speech on the job, and Ragsdale v. Wolverine Worldwide, which nullified a Department of Labor rule that forced employers to notify employees of their FMLA rights.
Considering these cases, the decisions coming out of the current Supreme Court tend to favor corporations over workers and the government over citizens.