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The Supreme Court: Now in Session

Don't forget to keep an eye on the only unelected branch of government

By Ashish Agrawal

During a pivotal election season, in a time of empty campaign slogans and election promises, it’s easy to forget that the only unelected branch of the federal government is currently debating some of the most controversial issues of our time. In light of the constant arguments about Bush and Kerry that have dominated the airwaves over the past months, it seems that the media and, in turn, the public, have largely ignored the effect of the Supreme Court. The cases up for deliberation this year, however, warrant our attention.

The Court officially began hearing open arguments for the 2004-2005 term on Oct. 4, and their docket is particularly interesting. Two of the most important cases this year are Roper v. Simmons and Johnson v. California. The first involves the highly controversial issue of juvenile execution, and thus American standards of decency in the criminal system; the second considers the legitimacy of racial segregation in prisons. Both have the potential to set profound precedents likely to have ramifications for policy at home and perceptions abroad, yet neither has garnered the attention it deserves.

On Sept. 9, 1993, Christopher Simmons, aged 17, brutally murdered Shirley Crook in St. Louis. The teenager tied her up in duct tape, electrical cable, leather straps and a towel before driving to the nearby state park to push her off a bridge into the Meramac River. Although Simmons bragged to his friends before the crime that his age would shield him from the consequences, he was sentenced to death. The Missouri Supreme Court, however, overturned the decision, citing “evolving standards of decency” that should otherwise prevent sentencing minors to death.

The Supreme Court has already received briefs regarding the case from the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, 48 different countries, and more than 12 Nobel Prize Winners. However, media coverage of Roper v. Simmons, and public awareness of the issue at stake, is virtually nowhere to be found. This case has the potential to change the way America’s judicial system is perceived in the international community. But while the world turns to look at us, we seem to be turning away.

The second case, Johnson v. California, involves racial segregation. For a society that seems so far beyond the problems that plagued the civil rights era, one would think that this case would provoke public astonishment. Instead, it seems to have fallen through the cracks. California’s prison system assigns cellmates based on race for the first 60 days in prison, apparently to reduce conflicts and gang violence until a permanent prison can be found. Though the Ninth Circuit Court believes that the system would be found unconstitutional if it were employed in situations and institutions in other areas of society, it seems to believe the prison system is inherently different.

Other states, such as New York, Florida and Illinois have alternate cellmate assigning policies that take into account gang affiliations while not necessarily separating by race. California’s system, however, creates an environment where prisoners develop racial biases, creating more severe problems when they are released back into society.

The outcome of these cases could have major implications for the future. How is segregation in prisons different from racial profiling in airports? Do prisons deserve to be treated differently from the rest of society? Should minors be held responsible for their actions? These are not simple questions, but since we have been given the opportunity to debate them, it is our obligation as citizens to do so.

Perhaps the public’s focus on the presidential election, which finally came to its culmination yesterday, has caused the inattention to these cases; but more attention needs to be paid to the work of our courts. The actions of our judiciary have given us the chance to debate issues that should be important to us, and we should take full advantage.

Ashish Agrawal ’08, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Stoughton Hall.

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