Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Faith Lapidus.
And I’m Steve Ember. This week, our subject is the Supreme Court.
Americans are waiting to see who will be the newest member, or members, of the Supreme Court.
President Bush already has one opening to fill on the nine-member court. And there has been much talk about possible other retirements, such as Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who has cancer.
The opening was created July first by the announced retirement of Sandra Day . She is seventy-five years old. Justice O’Connor was the first woman ever named to the Supreme Court. She has served twenty-four terms. She says she will stay until the Senate confirms her replacement.
President Bush says he hopes that will happen in time for the new Supreme Court term. By tradition, the court meets on the first Monday in October.
Republicans and opposition Democrats have prepared for a major confirmation battle. Activist groups have been campaigning in the media and by mail for and against different possible nominees.
Currently the newest member of the court is Stephen Breyer. Justice Breyer is sixty-six years old. President Bill Clinton nominated him eleven years ago.
A year before that, in nineteen ninety-three, President Clinton chose Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the court. Justice Ginsburg is seventy-two years old.
Two other justices, Clarence Thomas and David Souter, were nominated by President Bush's father when he was president. Justice Thomas is the youngest of the nine members. He is fifty-seven.
The oldest is John Paul Stevens. He is eighty-five. He was nominated by President Gerald Ford and joined the court in nineteen seventy-five.
Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Sandra Day O'Connor were all nominated by Ronald Reagan. President Reagan also nominated William Rehnquist as chief justice.
Mister Rehnquist had joined the court in nineteen seventy-two as an associate justice named by President Richard Nixon. Mister Rehnquist became chief justice in nineteen eighty-six. Now, he is eighty years old, and weakened by thyroid cancer.
Mister Rehnquist is among the more conservative members of the court. The most conservative are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The more liberal justices are John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy have been more conservative in some of their votes and more liberal in others.
President Reagan chose Sandra Day O'Connor for the Supreme Court in nineteen eighty-one. At the time she was a judge on the Arizona Court of Appeals. Many legal observers expected her to side with the conservatives on the high court. But she often surprised people. On social issues, legal experts consider her a moderate.
Justice O’Connor has been a swing vote on the court. Her vote made the difference in a number of important cases decided by votes of five-to-four.
Her vote, for example, helped give the presidency to George Bush after the disputed election of two thousand. The court ruled that Florida could stop a recount of votes in that state.
The Supreme Court was organized in seventeen ninety. It is the highest court in the land. Among its duties, the court decides if laws made by Congress and the states are constitutional.
President Bush says he wants judges who will stay true to the Constitution and not try to make their own laws.
Presidents usually try to name justices who share their political beliefs. Some presidents regret their choices. A famous example involves the chief justice from nineteen fifty-three to nineteen sixty-nine, Earl Warren. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him. The Warren court took many liberal positions. Eisenhower is said to have called the appointment "the biggest damfool mistake I ever made."
In nineteen seventy, another Republican president, Richard Nixon, appointed Harry Blackmun as a justice. For three years, Blackmun allied himself with other conservative members appointed by Nixon.
But in nineteen seventy-three, Harry Blackmun wrote the majority opinion in the case known as Roe versus Wade. That ruling said women have a right to end unwanted pregnancies.
The decision to make abortion on demand legal shook American society. Today abortion remains one of the most divisive social issues in the country.
Now, we look at some of the cases that the Supreme Court decided in its term that ended in June.
Two decisions pleased opponents of death sentences. In one, the court ruled against executing people whose crimes took place before they were eighteen years old. The justices ruled that doing so is cruel and unusual punishment. The Constitution bars such punishments.
Another ruling rejected a death sentence in the state of Pennsylvania. The majority ruled that the lawyer for the accused had failed to provide a satisfactory defense. The court said the lawyer did not present evidence that might have saved the man from being condemned to die.
In two other cases, the court ruled on religious displays in public places. These cases involved displays of the Ten Commandments in Texas and Kentucky. Each case ended in a five-to-four vote. But it was a mixed judgment.
The court ruled that a monument outdoors on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol was constitutional. However, a display on walls inside two Kentucky courthouses was ruled unconstitutional.
The court seemed to say that the Ten Commandments may appear on public property, but not if the goal is to gain support for religion.
Another case involved the medical use of marijuana as permitted by some states. The court decided that the government can arrest patients who use the illegal drug to ease pain. The ruling was in a California case. The ruling was seen as a declaration of federal power over the powers of the states.
In another case, however, the justices rejected federal sentencing guidelines passed by Congress in nineteen eighty-four. Those guidelines limited the ability of federal judges to decide the sentence that a criminal should receive. The Supreme Court found the system of required sentences unconstitutional.
In its term just ended, the Supreme Court also dealt with technology issues. The court decided a case involving peer-to-peer networks on the Internet. These services let people share electronic files.
The court ruled that peer-to-peer networks can face legal action if they create a climate for the illegal copying of music or movies. A lower court had decided differently.
Another big case involved eminent domain. This is the right of governments to take private property for public use. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution permits governments to take private property for "public use," if there is fair payment.
But the question in this case was whether eminent domain was constitutional if used for private economic development.
The court considered a plan to redevelop a waterfront area in New London, Connecticut. Opponents said it was unfair to force people to sell their homes against their will. But the court ruled that eminent domain can be used for private economic development if the goal is to improve a community. This case divided the court five-to-four.
The Supreme Court represents one of the three branches of the federal government. Conservatives presently control the other two: the presidency and Congress.
Now, Americans are waiting to see what direction the Supreme Court will take. Justices serve as long as they wish. This means that the presidents who appoint them may leave a long-lasting influence on the court, and on American life.
Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Faith Lapidus.
And I’m Steve Ember. Our reports are on the Web at voaspecialenglish.com. Please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.