From now until the start of October Term 2007 on October 1, I’ll be counting down the things that I’m looking forward to in the upcoming term of the Court. Today I’ll take a look at the Court’s power struggle with its co-equal branches.

Supreme Court Justices have always been considered a body of intellectuals that should more or less keep to themselves. It is widely accepted that there is value in having a group of Judges that steer clear of the political climate in Washington but that position of independence can only be maintained if the Justices avoid conflict with their co-equal branches. More and more however, the Justices are chipping away at major initiatives from both sides of the aisle.

Unfortunately, only adding to this trend is the recent surge in interest in the personal lives of the Justices. During the late 90′s, the Supreme Court took a backseat role to the President’s personal fidelity issues. Only in aftermath of the Bush v. Gore decision, did the Court take a major role in the minds of modern Americans. In the wake of America’s War on Terror(ism), the Court further shifted to the periphery as the Executive took control of American politics. The confirmation hearings of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito helped to bring attention back to the Court and the landmark decisions of the last term placed the Court very much in the center of the political cosmos. Jeffery Rosen’s article in the NY Times magazine yesterday highlighting the accomplishment’s of Justice Stevens, Jeffery Toobin’s wildly popular book about the inner-Court dynamics, and Justice Thomas’s upcoming memoir are all examples of our increasing focus on the Justices themselves as opposed to the Court as an institution.

Using the New York Times Archives, I searched for the phrase “Justice” within any article with the phrase “Supreme Court” in the headline during a given year. I extrapolated the data for 2007 based on the number of articles thus far in the year. You can click on the chart for a greatly enlarged view.


1981 30
1982 44
1983 42
1984 58
1985 51
1986 70
1987 48
1988 50
1989 49
1990 40
1991 42
1992 73
1993 71
1994 66
1995 49
1996 42
1997 30
1998 38
1999 49
2000 83
2001 59
2002 55
2003 59
2004 48
2005 81
2006 41
2007 40

The explosion of cases in 2000 was undoubtably a result of the 2000 election fiasco. The 2003 leap in headlines is only slightly more complicated. In 2003, the Court decided landmark cases in the realms of affirmative action, sodomy, and campaign-finance reform. The 2005 surge can be attributed to the death of Chief Justice Rehnquist, retirement of Justice O’Connor, and the confirmation hearings of their replacements.

Supreme Court Justices are vain and keenly aware of their position in the sphere of public policy. They are one of the hottest battlegrounds in Washington but outside of our capital city they haven’t achieved the same status as our elected branches of government. Last year, the Court accepted high-profile cases but thus far in OT 2007, they haven’t accepted any cases that could even hold a candle to some of the most controversial cases from the recent past.

So ultimately I’m looking forward to seeing how the Supreme Court Justices can flaunt their power and increase their status around the nation. Of all the Justices, I would expect Justice Kennedy to make some of the most outrageous claims in one direction or another.

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