Restrictions on court power

Constraints on the power of the Supreme Court, as determined by the Constitution, the executive and legislative branches, and the nature of the judicial process.

The Supreme Court, whose justices enjoy virtual life tenure, has the power to decide major disputes involving the powers of the government and the rights of citizens. It possesses the power to exercise judicial review and nullify legislation. However, the Court operates within a political and constitutional system that limits its powers. The most significant constraints are those imposed by the Constitution, Congress, and the executive branch and those imposed by the nature of the judicial process.Separation of powers

Constitutional Restrictions

The Court is an integral part of a constitutional democracy founded on the principles of limited government, the rule of law, separation of powers, and checks and balances. In this constitutional system, the will of the people, expressed in the Constitution, is considered the ultimate source of governmental power and of law. The Court, like the other branches of the government, is therefore bound fundamentally by the terms of the Constitution. For example, Article III sets limits on the kinds of cases the Court has authority over, such as cases raising constitutional issues and those involving laws passed by Congress. This means that state laws that do not involve a constitutional issue or do not come into conflict with a federal statute are generally not within the reach of the Court.

Congressional Restrictions

The principle of separation of powers effectively means that the Court may not enact law. The Court is charged with interpreting the law that originates within Congress or a state legislature or from the Constitution itself. Congress also possesses constitutional checks on Court power. For example, it sets the salariesSalaries;justices of the justices, though it is constitutionally prohibited from reducing them. The Congress may increase the number of justices on the Court, as it did during the Civil War, when ten justices served in 1863.

Congress may overrule a Court interpretation of a federal law by passing a new statute.Reversals of Court decisions by Congress For example, when the Court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not require private employers to provide disability benefits to pregnant workers, Congress passed a law revising Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to require those benefits. If Congress disagrees with the Court’s interpretation of a provision of the Constitution, it can initiate a constitutional amendment. For example, the Court’s ruling in Scott v. Sandford (1857) that African AmericansAfrican Americans;citizenship[citizenship] enjoyed no rights of U.S. citizenship was overruled by the Fourteenth Amendment. Congress can also adjust the jurisdiction of the Court, effectively denying it authority to hear certain kinds of cases on appeal. Although members of Congress have threatened to deny the Court jurisdiction over cases involving abortion and prayer in public schools, Congress has not enacted any jurisdictional limits on the Court in the twentieth century.

Congress indirectly restricts the Court’s power by influencing who becomes a justice. The Senate must vote to approve each person nominated by the president for a seat on the Court. Congress also is empowered by the Constitution to remove justices by impeachment and conviction for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Executive Branch Restrictions

The president influences the Court by appointing members to it and restricts its power by deciding how its rulings will be enforced. The Court depends on the political branches of the government, the executive branch in particular, to enforce its rulings. On some occasions, rulings have gone unenforced, such as the Court’s rulings prohibiting prayer in public schools. Although the Court ruled in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, it was several years before the president and Congress used their enforcement powers to coerce the compliance of resistant southern school authorities. Presidents sometimes attempt to influence Court rulings by appealing to public opinion and to Congress, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did in the 1930’s with his court-packing plan, designed to fill the Court with justices sympathetic to New Deal legislation.

Judicial Process Restrictions

The Court is restricted insofar as it abides by certain traditions and doctrines regarding the nature of the judicial process. For example, the Court restricts itself to cases involving parties in an actual dispute where something important is at stake. It will not give advice, even to the president, in hypothetical cases.

Similarly, the doctrine of standing restricts the Court. One of the parties must suffer some real injury or deprivation.Cases and controversies For example, in 1974 the Court refused to rule on Marco DeFunis’s claim that he had suffered discrimination when he was refused admission to law school in favor of minority applicants. The lower courts had allowed DeFunis to be admitted pending appeal of his case. By the time the case got to the Court, DeFunis was in his last year of law school, and it rejected the case, considering DeFunis no longer deprived.

The Court also restrains itself from becoming embroiled in so-called “political questions,” which often involve a battle between members of Congress and the president over a controversial policy, such as introducing U.S. troops into combat.

The Court’s tradition that all of its justices participate in each case restricts the Court in limiting the number of cases it is able to decide. Once a case does qualify for a ruling, the Court is further restricted by the force of law and precedent. The text of the law at issue and the prior Court interpretations of it impose a significant limit on how the Court may rule.

Further Reading

  • Abraham, Henry J. The Judicial Process. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Baum, Lawrence. The Supreme Court. 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1998.
  • Walker, Thomas G., and Lee Epstein. The Supreme Court of the United States. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Advisory opinions


Court-packing plan

Executive immunity

Impeachment of judges

Nominations to the Court

Reversals of Court decisions by amendment

Reversals of Court decisions by Congress

Rule of law