May It Please the Court
SCOTUS translations and trivia
“Let us have peace, but let us have liberty, law, and justice first.” — Frederick Douglass, 1878
This week has been…quite a week for the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS).
Given our focus on language and quirky items in this column — and the Independence Day holiday on July 4 — I thought it might be appropriate to spend some time on some terms and facts about SCOTUS.
Established by the Constitution, the Supreme Court began with the passage of the Judiciary Act in 1789 and was first seated in 1790 at the Exchange Building in New York City.
The first session was slated to begin on February 1, but had to be delayed until February 2, as some justices had transportation delays.
There was one Chief Justice, John Jay, and five Associate Justices: James Wilson, William Cushing, John Blair, John Rutledge and James Iredell.
For the next 100 years, justices had to “ride circuit,” or hold court in twice a year in each of the circuits (Eastern, Middle, and Southern).
The Court was in various locations before the Civil War, and it was housed in the Old Senate Chamber from 1861 to 1935. The chamber wasn’t spacious; the Justices ate lunch in the robing room.
There have been seventeen Chief Justices and 104 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years.
William Howard Taft is the only U.S. president to serve on the Supreme Court. He served as Chief Justice from 1921 – 1930.
Lewis F. Powell Jr., and William H. Rehnquist were sworn in during a special sitting of the court. When two justices join the court on the same day, seniority is determined by age.
The shortest opinion ever delivered by the court was from United States v. Barker, when Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “The United States never pay costs.”
The law is notorious for its use of Latin words and phrases that might seem arcane to mere civilians. Even as someone who took four years of Latin, I find myself reaching for the Latin to English dictionary from time to time.
Grant of Certiorari
A grant of certiorari is when the Supreme Court decides, at the request of the party that has filed a petition for certiorari, to review the merits of the case.
The word is derived from the Latin certiorare, meaning “to be informed.”
Such as this week, when the court granted certiorari to Moore v. Harper, which concerns whether
“a state’s judicial branch may nullify the regulations governing the “Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives ... prescribed ... by the Legislature thereof,” and replace them with regulations of the state courts’ own devising, based on vague state constitutional provisions purportedly vesting the state judiciary with power to prescribe whatever rules it deems appropriate to ensure a “fair” or “free” election.”
A habeas petition is a request for a court to review the legality of someone’s detention or imprisonment. All federal courts — not just the Supreme Court — can hear habeas petitions, though federal statutes impose significant constraints.
The term habeas corpus means that someone who is placed under arrest must appear before a judge. The Latin literally means “you shall have the body (in court).”
In a decision on June 22 in Shoop v. Twyford, the court
“limited the ability of federal courts to use the All Writs Act to order states to transport prisoners, even when such transport could help prisoners investigate whether their convictions are unconstitutional.”
I rest my case.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.