The Supreme Court is a higher appellate court in every country. It is the last resort for dissenting parties to ensure they were heard and justice was delivered thereafter. However, a Supreme is not binding to hear all the appellants that come knocking on its door. To understand this and many other aspects surrounding the supreme court, we must know what is the supreme court.
The supreme court is the superior branch of the judiciary in every constitutional democracy. Although its functions vary from country to country, it remains the superior court to hear controversial cases that couldn’t be resolved or didn’t come under the jurisdiction of inferior courts i.e. district courts, sessions courts, high courts, etc.
Judiciary plays an essential role in strengthening the justice system in every democratic state. Any democracy will remain a crippled, maimed, and tarnished one until the judiciary isn’t given a free hand to thoroughly examine a conflict before it. Courts are established under law to listen to all conflicting parties on local or country levels, ensure a fair trial for the accused person, and give a judgment that guarantees the safety of fundamental rights stipulated in the constitution.
That’s the basic role of the judiciary in any state. However, the judiciary is further divided into multiple branches/levels that cater to different kinds of cases. This division of judicial branches also differs from country to country, but generally, there are city/district level courts at the bottom of the list. And then comes state-level courts which are crowned by the supreme court who sits atop everyone.
The law of the land determines the function of each branch of the judiciary. But commonly, the city-level courts are responsible to hear local cases like forgery, fraud, hit and run, brawls, injuries, lawsuits against companies, etc. On the other hand, state/province level courts only hear cases that pertain to domestic violence, robbery, rape, arson, rioting, etc. In simple terms, they adhere to the cases that are consequential for the entire state/province.
However, unlike both city and state-level courts, the supreme court is extremely selective of the cases it must listen to. The superior branch of the judiciary limits itself to the cases that are a) unresolved by smaller courts b) impact the entire country and c) need a comprehensive interpretation of the constitution.
It is pertinent to mention that the judiciary cannot make laws. That responsibility lies with the legislature. The judiciary can only interpret the law, or repel any that contradicts the text and spirit of the constitution.
What exactly does the supreme court do?
The Supreme Court’s sole responsibility is to dissect the case at hand, hold a comprehensive discussion on the relevant issues and correctly interpret the law in order to reach a final, uncontentious verdict. In broader terms, the Supreme Court acts as the guardian of the constitution. It can repel any law that explicitly contravenes the constitution. Sometimes, It also plays an arbiter’s role between two conflicting parties.
All in all, the supreme court is the ultimate authority in deciding the legal matters whose impact stretches to the length and breadth of the country.
Having said that, it is important to mention that the supreme court is NOT a dictatorial institution. It only acts in accordance with the law of the land. To avoid its hegemony, in almost all cases, the superior court allows the losing party to file a review petition against its own verdict within a particular timeline if they, by any chance, think that the verdict is contradictory or controversial and that the dissenting party has enough evidence to support their claim.
The superior branch of the judiciary derives its powers from “Trias Politica” or Separation of Powers, a term coined by French philosopher de Montesquieu in 1748.
This theory has played a crucial role in organizing the political power of a government. It has divided the government into three branches:
- Legislative branch
- Executive branch
- Judicial branch
This branch of the government comprises members from both opposition and government and is responsible to make the laws or amend the existing ones. They do so after exhaustively debating on a bill and then voting by all the members from both sides of the aisle. The majority of the votes decide the fate of the bill; if it gets passed, it will be sent for the further due procedure and after completing all required steps, it ends up being a law.
The executive branch of the government ensures the execution of the law that the legislative branch makes or amends. The executive branch is a broader term used for the bureaucracy, security and intelligence agencies, and other numerous agencies that are in charge of maintaining law and order. These departments are often headed by the government ministers who are part of the cabinet, headed by the Prime Minister in the parliamentary form of government and by the President in the Presidential form of government.
The judicial branch, by law, supervises both the legislation and execution of laws and ensures that they don’t violate the rules stipulated in the constitution. It acts as a watchdog for the above-mentioned branches of the government. It has the power to rebuff any law that sails through the parliament but basically stands against the superior law of the land. It can also hold accountable different departments working under the executive branch of the government, provided they fail to respect rights and liberties as inscribed in the constitution.
The separation of powers theory strictly restricts every branch of the government to remain within their prescribed domain as any overlapping will prompt an imbalance of power that may not bode well for a country.
The supreme court may be powerful in many aspects, but it has also been directed not to go beyond its boundaries and interfere in legislative or executive matters without a profound reason, supported by the constitution.
What is the supreme court simple definition?
According to Merriam Webster, the supreme court is:
“… the highest judicial tribunal in a political unit, such as a nation or state.”
The encyclopedia Britannica defines the supreme court as, “final court of appeal and final expositor of the constitution [of United States]. Within the framework of litigation, the Supreme Court marks the boundaries of authority between state and nation, state and state, and government and citizen.”
While the Cambridge Dictionary mentions the supreme court as: “the most important law court in [the US] a country.”
From these simple definitions of the supreme court, we can assume that the supreme court is the ultimate judicial authority in any country that decides matters in the light of the law that are either too controversial for any other authority to resolve or too impactful for the entire country.
What is the supreme court and its powers?
The Supreme court is the apex court in any country. Being a top court of law, it has greater powers as well as responsibilities. The supreme court is the protector of the constitution and also, is responsible to guarantee the protection of fundamental rights in legislative and administrative matters.
The powers of supreme courts are enshrined in the constitution itself. But they largely differ from country to country.
US Supreme Court powers:
In the United States, the supreme court doesn’t run trial proceedings. Instead, it can only interpret the meaning of the law, suggest how the law can be implemented, and see if the law is executable at all or not.
Another power of the US supreme court is called judicial review. Judicial review is one such practice that is prevalent almost everywhere in the world. This power allows the supreme court to review any law or act from different angles and see if it conforms with the constitution. Provided that the law is found contravening the superior law of the land, the supreme court has the power to repel it outrightly or send it back to congress for review.
The apex court of the United States can also strike down the presidential directives if they’re found to be in violation of the constitution. However, it can only approach the case within the limits of its jurisdiction. Lastly, the US apex court, though an important player in the checks and balances game of power, doesn’t have the power to appoint its judges. The US president nominates Supreme Court justices who need ratification from Congress to sit in the chair of his Highness.
Indian Supreme Court powers:
We have another instance of the Indian Supreme Court, the apex court of the largest democracy in the world. The judges of the Indian supreme court, unlike US justices, are appointed by the President after consultation with Supreme and High court judges. The Indian apex court is also the last resort for settling serious legal disputes. Moreover, it can give advisory opinions to the president on certain matters. The Indian supreme court can hear appeals against the verdicts of High courts and other tribunals.
United Kingdom Supreme Court powers:
The UK supreme court is also the final court of appeal in the country. Being an appeal court, it cannot consider a case unless a relevant order has not been passed by lower courts. The English apex court hears all civil and criminal cases that are of utmost importance. However, unlike other supreme courts mentioned here, the UK apex court doesn’t have the power to repel or overrule the laws passed by the United Kingdom parliament.
The UKSC’s website says:
“Unlike some Supreme Court in other parts of the world, the UK supreme court does not have the power to ‘strike down’ legislation passed by the UK Parliament. It is the Court’s role to interpret the law and develop it where necessary, rather than formulate public policy.
Who controls the supreme court?
This question is a tricky one because of the fact that it is still largely debated who controls the supreme court. However, in most countries, the constitution empowers the legislature to establish courts, and the executive to appoint justices. This gives both branches an inherent power of enacting and enforcing.
The United States of America is a case in point. Article III of the US constitution reads:
“The Judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such Inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behavior, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.”
This article clearly hands Congress the power to ‘ordain and establish courts. This also means that it will be Congress to decide the jurisdiction of the courts it establishes and what power to concentrate in the judiciary. So technically, it is Congress that controls the Supreme Court in the United States.
Nevertheless, an important question arises in this debate: if Congress controls the Supreme Court, how can the apex court overrule or ‘strike down’ any presidential directives or legislation by Congress?
Well, it is true that the Supreme Court has the power to overrule any legislation and rebuff any presidential directives. But the condition for that power is when the said actions explicitly violate the constitution and the Government fails to satisfy the apex court that the legislation is as per law. In this way, the Supreme Court is superior to the parliament.
But is that the end of the debate? Absolutely not.
Can the government still have its own way if it wants that legislation to be passed anyway without any unwanted interpretation by the Supreme Court? The answer is yes.
As we know the legislative branch of the government has the power to make or amend laws, it can easily introduce an amendment to the provision of the Constitution on the basis of which the Supreme Court had overruled the legislation. Not only that, the government can also restrict the powers of the Supreme Court by amending the part of the Constitution that gives the judiciary the power.
Another instance of the fact that Congress controls the supreme court is that the president recommends justices of the superior court, who are later confirmed by the Senate. And even though these justices serve for no fixed period and can continue their service until death, they can be removed by the impeachment in the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate.
In the 246 years old history of the United States, a total of 14 judges have been impeached so far.
You see, the judiciary is, for sure, superior in many aspects to the legislature. But provided that the legislature is the one who makes or amends laws – the very laws the judiciary is sworn to protect – we can conclude the legislature controls the Supreme Court. The fact that the Supreme Court, or any court, cannot interfere in the proceedings of Congress also validates the superiority of the legislature.
And this is not only true in the United States. Almost all constitutional democracies follow the same model. Even the United Kingdom, which has an unwritten constitution, gives its Parliament an upper hand.
Why is the Supreme Court important?
Irrespective of the debate about the supremacy of government branches, the role of the Supreme Court in a democratic country is essential for the balance of power. Left unchecked, the government can gain absolute power, and as in the words of historian Lord Acton, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Therefore, an independent, powerful and unbiased judiciary is indispensable to halt the way of authoritarianism prevailing in society. In this context, the superior court is important to maintain the rule of law and uphold the constitution in its truest spirit.
Here’s more on why is the supreme court important:
1. The highest court in the land
The importance of having the highest court in a country can be comprehended by simply comparing the same scenario in an organization, corporation, or even a family. There is always a central figure in these institutions. That person is an authority in itself which is non-disputed and can deliver a sound judgment to resolve a conflict.
The Supreme Court, as the highest court in the land, does the same job. Except it acts in a certain way prescribed in a constitution. It has a whole set of rules and regulations to legally approach a matter and settle it in an unbiased and uncontentious way, as the law suggests. Similarly, the supreme court is the final resort for all dissenting parties to take their matters into. The matter, once it reaches the apex court, would not be lingering anymore.
2. Judicial review
Judicial review is the most outstanding power of the Supreme Court. It plays a decisive role in the balance of power between the government branches in any democracy. This power makes an apex court The Protector of the Constitution in real means. It allows the court to overrule any law or administrative directives that are in clear violation of the constitution.
The glaring instance of it would be Roe vs. Wade (1973) in which the US Supreme Court ruled all the state laws unconstitutional that prohibited prohibition. The court held that a woman’s right to an abortion fell within the right to privacy as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. However, it needs to be mentioned that the verdict has now been overturned by the Supreme Court itself.
3. Rights protection
One of the basic duties of the Supreme Court is to protect the civil liberties and the fundamental rights of all citizens. It does so by striking down laws that stand in sheer violation of fundamental rights. The Supreme Court cannot compromise over this and ensures the safety of rights in every case it hears.
4. Checks and balances
The Supreme Court’s role is extremely crucial in strengthening democracy. Democracy is all about kneeling down to the majority. The majority decides who gets to sit in the office of the country’s premier. This can be hazardous, given that if the ruling party gets a simple majority in Parliament, it can pass any legislation. The Supreme Court ensures that while the majority runs the government, the rights of minorities are very well protected and that the majority remains within constitutional boundaries.
The affairs of a state are regulated by a constitution that sets the rules of the game for every institution. While the Parliament is given authority to enact laws to further strengthen the polity, the judiciary looks after these laws so as to make sure no one violates them to have their own way. The Supreme Court, in this case, plays a decisive role as a watchdog. It can repeal laws that violate fundamental rights and civil liberties. It can hold accountable the institutions that act against the constitution, remaining well within its constitutional boundaries.
The Supreme Court is supreme judicial authority in a country that is led by competent judges who are appointed by the executive. The method of how a supreme court is formed and who appoints judges and how differs from country to country. Even the powers of the Supreme Court are not the same everywhere. In some countries, the law concentrates much power into the sphere of the Supreme Court while in others, they are restricted by the law.
What’s the main power of the supreme court?
The main power of the Supreme Court is the judicial review that gives it the authority to overrule any legislation that violates the constitution or strike down unconstitutional directives
Who controls the Supreme Court?
Though the laws vary from country to country, generally, it’s the parliament that controls the Supreme Court
Does the Supreme Court make laws?
No. However, the Supreme Court does make laws in a way when it gives reasons for a particular verdict. That interpretation of a particular provision of the constitution becomes a source of law.
Can the Supreme Court overrule a government?
The Supreme Court has no authority to overrule the government. However, in some rare cases, it can give verdicts that can lead to a change of government.