to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.
I'm Faith Lapidus. This week on our program, we turn our attention to the nine
most important judges in the country.
CRIER: "The honorable, the chief justice and the associate justices of the
Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All
persons having business before the honorable, the Supreme Court of the United
States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the court is
now sitting. God save the United States and this honorable court."
words of the court crier are a modern-day reminder of the long history of the
nation's highest court. Justices are appointed for life by the president and
confirmed by the Senate.
term the Supreme Court receives thousands of petitions to hear cases. The court
released seventy-two opinions this term.
cases, all decided by votes of five to four, got the majority of the
case involved the District of Columbia -- as in Washington, D.C., the nation's
capital. At issue was whether or not a city ban on handguns violated the Second
Amendment to the Constitution.
ROBERTS: "We will hear argument today in case seven two-ninety, District
of Columbia versus Heller."
Dick Heller, a security guard who wanted to keep a gun at home for
Justice John Roberts introduced the case. Then he called on Walter Dellinger, a
lawyer for the District of Columbia.
DELLINGER: "Good morning, Mister Chief Justice, and may it please the
court. The Second Amendment was a direct response to concern over Article One
Section Eight of the Constitution, which gave the new national Congress the
surprising, perhaps even the shocking, power to organize, arm and presumably
disarm the state militias. What is at issue this morning is the scope and
nature of the individual right protected by the resulting amendment, and the
first text to consider is the phrase protecting a right to keep and bear arms
The Supreme Court heard the case in
March. It announced its decision in June, in the last major ruling of the term.
The court declared the handgun ban unconstitutional.
Second Amendment was approved in seventeen ninety-one. It says: "A well
regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right
of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
experts and non-experts alike have long debated what these words mean. Does the
amendment protect the rights of a group -- a well-regulated militia? -- or the
rights of an individual?
how does a court balance a collective desire to stop gun violence with an
individual's desire for protection?
John Paul Stevens wrote the main dissent, saying: "When each word in the
text is given full effect, the Amendment is most naturally read to secure to
the people a right to use and possess arms in conjunction with service in a
The five justices in the majority,
however, ruled that the amendment does protect an individual right to own a
gun. But they suggested that does not mean anyone can own a gun, or any kind
they want, or carry it in places like schools or government buildings.
for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said, "Like most rights, the right
secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited."
The ruling may have settled one
question. But critics said it raised others by not explaining enough what the
limits may be.
Another ruling involved the rights of
foreign terrorism suspects held at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay,
court ruled that the prisoners held as enemy combatants have the constitutional
right of habeas corpus. That means they have a right to appeal their detention
in civilian courts. More than two hundred detainees remain at Guantanamo.
laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in
extraordinary times," said the ruling in June.
dissenters, including Chief Justice John Roberts, said the decision will only
make it more difficult to fight terrorism.
Monday, at Guantanamo, the United States opened its first military war crimes
tribunal since World War Two.
same day, Attorney General Michael Mukasey urged Congress to write new rules
limiting the power of civilian courts in hearings of detainees. He said
Congress needs to settle what he called the "difficult questions left open
by the Supreme Court."
ruling in June, the Supreme Court barred death sentences for child rape. The
court, in a case from Louisiana, found execution unconstitutional for crimes
that do not involve a death.
Justice Anthony Kennedy gave the opinion
for the court, as he also did in the Guantanamo case. He said thirty-six states
and the federal government permit execution, but only six states approve it for
child rape. He said there was evidence of "a national consensus"
against capital punishment for that crime.
But a military law blog pointed out
something that the parties in the case, and the court, missed. The federal
government does permit the death penalty for child rape. Congress, in a two
thousand six law, made that offense a crime punishable by death for members of
The Supreme Court can rehear a case, but
that is unusual. It can happen only if one of the parties in the case asks for
it. Last week, lawyers for the state of Louisiana asked for a rehearing.
The nine justices will consider the
petition in September. If they decide to rehear the case, it will go on the
court schedule for the new term that begins in October.
law, the court begins its term on the first Monday. The term lasts a year but the
court usually begins its summer recess by the end of June.
of the most important powers of the Supreme Court is judicial review. This is
the power to judge if a state or federal action is legal under the
Constitution. This power did not come from the Constitution. Rather, it
developed from cases heard by the court in its early years.
The first Supreme Court met in seventeen
ninety. The Supreme Court is the only court that was created by the Constitution.
Article Three of the Constitution gave Congress the power to create lower
The federal government has only those
powers given to it by the Constitution. All others are held by the states. This
is why the United States does not have, for example, a national education
system. Education is not discussed in the Constitution. So each state was free
to develop its own system.
decisions by the Supreme Court are final. There is no appeal. The court can
change its mind on issues over time. But the only way to strike down a decision
by the court is to amend the Constitution.
Supreme Court is asked to decide many of society's most difficult questions.
ruling has been debated for the past thirty-five years. The court ruled that
the Constitution protects a woman's right to have an abortion, at least during
the first three months of pregnancy.
conservatives want the court to overturn its ruling in the case known as Roe v.
Wade. The court has narrowly upheld its decision.
People may expect a Democratic president
to appoint justices who are more liberal and a Republican to choose more
conservative ones. Republican candidate John McCain says Roe v. Wade "should be
overturned." Democrat Barack Obama calls himself "a strong believer in a
women's right to choose with her doctor, her pastor and her family."
But things do not always work out the way
people, or presidents, may expect. John Paul Stevens, considered the most
liberal justice on the court, was appointed by Gerald Ford, a Republican.
Justice Stevens joined the court in nineteen seventy-five. He is eighty-eight
do Americans think of the Supreme Court? Public opinion researchers at
Quinnipiac University in Connecticut have been asking people for five years
now. They released their latest poll this month.
the first time they found that more voters disapprove than approve of the job
the court is doing on social issues. The difference was narrow: forty-three
percent to thirty-nine percent.
percent of voters said the Supreme Court is too liberal. Thirty-one percent
said the court is too conservative. But thirty-three percent said the court is
program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Mario Ritter and Caty Weaver. I'm Steve
Faith Lapidus. Audio of the Supreme Court came from the Oyez Project, at o-y-e-z
dot o-r-g. For a link, along with transcripts and MP3s of our programs, go to
voaspecialenglish.com. We hope you join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA
in VOA Special English.