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Myths Busted: The Supreme Court and Its Justices

Supreme Court Building

“EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER THE LAW”

Those are the words carved above the entrance to the United States Supreme Court Building. As the name suggests, the Supreme Court is the highest court in the country.

But what does the Supreme Court really do? We’re here to give you the rundown, as well as bust some myths floating around out there about the high court.

The Basics

According to the Supreme Court website, the Court is the “final arbiter of the law,” charged with making sure the American people get equal justice under the law. It also functions as a guardian and interpreter of the Constitution as a result.

Translation: The Court hears cases, and rules whether or not state laws or the previous decisions made on these cases by lower courts are consistent with what’s laid out by the United States Constitution.

For example, in the recent case of New York Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, the Court struck down a New York law that placed limits on concealed carry outside the home. In this case, the Court ruled that carrying a handgun for self-defense is covered by the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Therefore, states with unusually strict concealed carry permit policies are acting unconstitutionally.

Top Corner: Ketanji Brown Jackson
Top Row (L-R): Brett Kavanaugh, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, Amy Coney Barrett
Bottom Row (L-R): Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Stephen Breyer (retired and replaced by Jackson), Sonia Sotomayor
Photos from supremecourt.gov & authorsalliance.org

Other Important Information to Note:

There are nine Justices on the Supreme Court, one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. At the time of this blog post, they are: Justice Samuel Alito, Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, and Chief Justice John Roberts.

Each year, the Supreme Court is asked to hear between 7,000 and 8,000 cases, but it can only take a small percentage of them (usually around 80). The Court also has what’s known as “original jurisdiction” on a few cases between states or a state and the Federal Government. These cases have not gone through the lower courts and had previous rulings like the other cases the Supreme Court hears.

Myth #1: The Supreme Court Has the Constitutional Power of Judicial Review.

First off, what in the world is judicial review?

Judicial review is the most well-known power of the Supreme Court. It’s the ability to declare an action by one of the other branches of government (Executive or Legislative) unconstitutional.

So the Court has the power to do this, right?

Yes. However, judicial review is not actually a power granted by the Constitution. It has become a power of the Court over time.

Before the Constitution was adopted as the official governing law of the country in 1789, both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote about how important it was for the Court to be able to do judicial review. According to them, by adopting the Constitution as Supreme Law of the Land, it made sense for the Supreme Court to review and potentially strike down state and Congressional laws that didn’t match what the document said.

Judicial review was officially recognized as a Supreme Court power in 1803, when Chief Justice John Mitchell said in order to uphold the Constitution, being able to overturn unconstitutional laws was necessary (essentially restating the point that Hamilton and Madison made years earlier).

Myth #1 Status: BUSTED

Madison and Hamilton
James Madison and Alexander Hamilton advocated for the Supreme Court to have the power of Judicial Review back in 1789.
Images from britannica.com & history.com.

Myth #2: The Supreme Court Provides Opinions With Their Rulings.

Well, yes and no. It depends on what you mean by opinions.

The rulings presented by Justices come in the form of “opinions.” In this case (no pun intended there!), the term opinion is not supposed to be taken literally. These opinions are documents that lay out the judgments and reasonings of different justices. When a vote is split, you might see multiple opinions from the two sides of the vote laying down the evidence that led to their votes.

Now back to the definition of opinion you’re probably more familiar with.

Unlike that close friend we all trust when we have a problem, Justices are not supposed to provide opinionated advice. Instead they try to remain impartial and rule based on what the Constitution says. Some people believe the Constitution is open to interpretation, but here it is clear: the Supreme Court is specifically limited to dealing with “cases” and “controversies.”

Throwing it way back again, John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Court, refused to help President George Washington with a foreign policy decision on the grounds that the Constitution did not give him that power as a Supreme Court Justice.

Myth #2 Status: BUSTED (kind of)

Myth #3: Court Decisions Become Laws.

The Supreme Court can’t make laws, since that’s the job of the Legislative Branch. But when the Court makes a ruling, it has a ripple effect across the country when it comes to laws, often for years to come.

With each new interpretation can come new action by state legislatures. A good example of this would be the recent Bruen decision we mentioned earlier. When the decision was made, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that it did not restrict states from setting requirements to get a concealed carry permit; it just ruled unusually strict licensing policies unconstitutional. In response to this decision, states like New York and California have had to get rid of some of their restrictive licensing processes, but their state lawmakers are already hard at work drafting new permit requirements they hope will serve as loopholes to the ruling.

However, Court decisions are not always the be-all end-all. The Court can revisit and reverse rulings past Justices have made if they find that the previous rulings were not on par with the Constitution.

Constitutional Amendments can also overrule judicial decisions. These are few and far between though. Additional amendments require a two-thirds vote from both Houses of Congress and approval by at least three-fourths of the State legislatures, so it takes more than a little legwork to get one of those off the ground.

Myth #3 Status: BUSTED

Chief Justice John Roberts addresses a crowd.
Photo from ABC News.

Having read up on these busted myths, you can now show off that new knowledge to your family and friends the next time a Supreme Court decision comes out, whether it’s firearms-related or something entirely different.

If you’re interested in learning more about laws surrounding firearms and what the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision may mean for you, find a Concealed Coalition class in your area today! In addition to state-specific legal framework, we’ll also cover topics like proper firearm operation, child access prevention, and situational awareness, all of which will help you become a safer, more well-rounded gun owner.

Sources: supremecourt.gov, uscourts.gov, whitehouse.gov

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