On Feb. 1, 1790, the Supreme Court held its first session in New York City’s Royal Exchange Building. At the time, the Court presided with little fanfare, and held little real power. This changed beginning with its decision in Marbury v. Madison, in which the Court assigned itself the role of final arbiter regarding the constitutionality of laws.
Since then, the Court has grown more powerful, and debates about the proper role of the Court have grown with it. “Originalists” argue that the Court should interpret the Constitution as written, and should generally try to stay away from causing sweeping policy changes as much as possible. Proponents of a “living Constitution”, however, argue that the Court should be willing to update its view of the Constitution as society itself changes.
One area in which the Court has frequently intervened is on the issue of slavery. One important case is that of the U.S. v. Amistad. The decision is depicted in the video clip.
- Why do you think the Supreme Court has grown more powerful over time?
- Do you believe controversial issues should be decided by the Court, or the political branches of government? What are the implications of one method versus the other?
- Do you identify more with an “originalist” or “living Constitution” perspective? Why?