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  • AQA Component The judicial branch of government

  • Edexcel Component 3A: Section 4: US Supreme Court and civil rights 

Background: what you need to know

The imminent retirement of Stephen Breyer highlights the intensely political nature of appointments to the US Supreme Court. Nominations are made by the President and confirmed by the Senate, which at the moment is equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. Many Democrats wanted Breyer, the longest serving liberal justice, to retire during the Biden presidency so that a younger progressive figure can be installed. The timing of Breyer’s resignation is important since it should allow the Senate to hold the confirmation hearings before the midterm elections in November.

The article speculates on how, in a finely balanced Senate, certain key individuals may react to a Biden nomination. It also highlights another factor in appointments. Biden has said that he will look for a black female nominee. The promotion of greater diversity on the Court is an important concern for Democrats.

Click to read the articles below and then answer the questions:

White House prepares to act quickly to fill Breyer’s Supreme Court seat

This is a helpful profile of Breyer:

A bridge builder for the US Supreme Court

Depending on the examination board you are following, now answer one of the following questions.

Question in the style of AQA Politics Paper 2

  • Explain and analyse three ways in which the US Supreme Court has become a political rather than a judicial body in recent years. [9 marks]

Question in the style of Edexcel Politics Paper 3A

  • Evaluate the view that the appointments procedure for the US Supreme Court has made it a largely political body.

    You must consider this view and the alternative to this view in a balanced way. (30)

    TIP: The way in which its members are appointed can certainly be used as evidence for the political rather than strictly judicial nature of the Court, as the balance between liberals and conservatives has a strong bearing on its decision-making. However, you should also bear in mind that the Court’s role is to interpret the Constitution and it must base its rulings on that document.

Graham Goodlad, St John’s College

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