Analyze and evaluate decisions by the United States Supreme Court about the constitutional principles of separation of powers and checks and balances in such landmark cases as Marbury v. Madison (1803), Baker v. Carr (1962), United States v. Nixon (1974), City of Boerne, Texas v. Flores (1997), and Clinton v. City of New York (1998)

The US Supreme Court: Washington DC

Focus Question: How has the Supreme Court interpreted the principles of the separation of powers and checks and balances?

Topics on the Page

Separation of Powers Defined
Landmark Cases
Marbury v. Madison (1803)
Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company v. Sawyer (1952)
Baker v. Carr (1962)
United States v. Nixon (1974)
City of Boerne, Texas v. Flores (1997)
Clinton v. City of New York (1998)
African American Supreme Court Justices

external image 200px-Government_icon.svg.pngSee also AP American Government C: Checks and Balances

The separation of powers was created by the framers of the Constitution as a way of ensuring that there would be too much centralized power in the American government system.

  • There are three different branches of government at the national level: The Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch, and the Judicial Branch.

James Madison, 1816
“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may just-ly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." James Madison on the Separation of Powers.

Each branch of government has checks and balances to prevent one branch from having too much power or control over the others.

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 12.30.24 PM.pngClick here for a lesson plan designed to provide students with first-hand experience about how the three branches of the United States government work together through the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances.
Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 11.31.41 AM.pngLandmark Supreme Court Cases and the Constitution

timeline2_rus.svg.pngInteractive Timeline of Landmark Supreme Court Cases, created by PBS

Link also Landmark Cases of the U. S. Supreme Court from Street Law

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

This case is credited with establishing Judicial Review which gives the Supreme Court the right to rule laws or actions as unconstitutional. This is the Supreme Court's major check on the Federal Government.
external image Marbury_v_Madison_John_Marshall_by_Swatjester_crop.jpg

  • This case was brought to the Supreme Court because in the last few days of John Adams presidency he appointed several men to positions in the government, one a man named William Marbury. These men were not given their jobs when Adams left office because the appointments were said not to be finalized.
  • In a 4 to 0 ruling (Justices Moore and Cushing did not participate), the Supreme Court ruled that they had the right to determine if an act of the Legislature went against "the nations highest law" the Constitution. If it was decided that their actions did, the Supreme Court had the right to make that act invalid, establishing the Supreme Court tool of judicial review.

Multimedia.pngClick here to watch a short YouTube clip outlining the historical context of Marbury v. Madison and the precedents that the historic case set for the Supreme Court moving forward.

rotating gif.gifSee United States History I.25 for more on Marbury v. Madison

lesson_plan_icon.jpgiCivics lesson plan for teaching Marbury v. Madison.

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company v. Sawyer (1952)

Baker v. Carr (1962)

Charles W. Baker and other Tennessee citizens claimed that the state ignored population shifts and growth in the economy when appointing seats for the General Assembly, which was mandated by a 1901 Tennessee law.
  • They brought the case to the Supreme Court which rose the question, did the Supreme Court have any jurisdiction in legislature appointment?
  • In a 6 to 2 vote, the Court asserted that under the 14th Amendment it could intervene in how the state of Tennessee was reapportioning legislative districts.
  • In so doing, the Court moved away from a position of judicial restraint to assert greater power in its relationship with the legislative branch of government.

H.R. Haldeman, Dwight Chapin, John D. Ehrlichman, President Richard Nixon, March 1970
H.R. Haldeman, Dwight Chapin, John D. Ehrlichman, President Richard Nixon, March 1970
United States v. Nixon (1974)
In this Watergate-related case, President Richard M. Nixon cited "executive privilege" in refusing to give audio tapes of oval office conversations to a special prosecutor who was investigating the actions of Nixon and his aides.
  • In a 8 to 0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the president could not use "executive privileges" to hide or keep information secret.
  • This established that the president was not above the law.

Click here for information on single or multi-class lesson plans on the United States v. Nixon Supreme Court case.

For more information on Watergate, see USII.28

lesson_plan_icon.jpgiCivics mini lesson for teaching United States v. Nixon.

City of Boerne, Texas v. Flores (1997)

Archbishop Flores of San Antonio sued the city of Boerne because the city wouldn't let them expand the church to fit the needs of his growing congregation.
  • He claimed using the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that the state was limiting his religious freedom.
  • The city of Boerne rebutted by saying the act was unconstitutional as it limits how the states can regulate religious uses of land.
  • In a 6 to 2 decision, the Supreme Court decided the RFRA violated the Constitution.

Clinton v. City of New York (1998)

This case involves President Clinton and his Line Item Veto Act.
  • Clinton cancelled provisions in both the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and the Tax Payer R
    President Bill Clinton
    elief Act of 1997.
  • This angered two groups who went on to challenge his right to cancel these provisions. The cases were consolidated into one and presented before the Supreme Court.
  • In a 6 to 3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that his cancellation violated the Presentment Clause of Article I which says that legislation that is passed through the House and Congress must either be signed into law or rejected. The president cannot pick and choose what he likes.
  • This further limited the power of the presidency.

Multimedia.pngClick here to watch a video about Clinton v. City of New York, and learn about the historical context surrounding the case and the impacts on the executive branch of the government and American society that the case had.

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 12.30.24 PM.pngLesson Plan for teaching 10th-12th Clinton v. New York (1998)

African American Supreme Court Justices

Image result for thurgood marshall
Image result for thurgood marshall

Thurgood Marshall (July 2nd, 1908 - January 24th, 1993) was the first African American Supreme Court Justice. Marshall had an extremely successful career as a lawyer prior to being elected as a Supreme Court Justice, winning Supreme Court cases such as Chambers v. Florida (1940), Smith v. Allwright (1944), and the famous Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Marshall was nominated to serve as a Supreme Court Justice by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and was sworn in as such on October 2nd, 1967. He would remain in the position until his death in 1993, after having been overseen famous cases such as Furman v. Georgia (1972) and Roe v. Wade (1973).

Quill_and_ink.pngClick here to learn more about Thurgood Marshall's life, accomplishments, and influence on the Civil Rights Movement

Image result for clarence thomas
Image result for clarence thomas

Clarence Thomas (June 23rd, 1948 - present) is the second African American Supreme Court Justice elected to office, having been nominated by President George Bush Sr. and sworn in following an extremely controversial approval process involving claims of sexual harassment by a former aid, Anita Hill. Nonetheless, Thomas was sworn in and has since presided over controversial popular issues brought before the Supreme Court such as the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), constitutional rights of gay couples to be married, affirmative action, and more.

Quill_and_ink.pngClick here to read a biography on Clarence Thomas' life, education, and journey to becoming a Supreme Court Justice.