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But the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of all these issues and others. Even without unanimous agreement among citizens, Supreme Court decisions have made all these possibilities a reality, a particularly important one for the individuals who become the beneficiaries ( [link] ). The judicial branch has often made decisions the other branches were either unwilling or unable to make, and Hamilton was right in Federalist No. 78 when he said that without the courts exercising their duty to defend the Constitution, “all the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing.”

Over time, the courts have made many decisions that have broadened the rights of individuals. This table is a sampling of some of these Supreme Court cases.
Examples of Supreme Court Cases Involving Individuals
Case Name Year Court’s Decision
Brown v. Board of Education     1954 Public schools must be desegregated.
Gideon v. Wainwright 1963 Poor criminal defendants must be provided an attorney.
Miranda v. Arizona 1966 Criminal suspects must be read their rights.
Roe v. Wade 1973 Women have a constitutional right to abortion.
McDonald v. Chicago 2010 An individual has the right to a handgun in his or her home.
Riley v. California 2014 Police may not search a cell phone without a warrant.
Obergefell v. Hodges 2015 Same-sex couples have the right to marry in all states.

The courts seldom if ever grant rights to a person instantly and upon request. In a number of cases, they have expressed reluctance to expand rights without limit, and they still balance that expansion with the government’s need to govern, provide for the common good, and serve a broader societal purpose. For example, the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the death penalty , ruling that the Eighth Amendment does not prevent a person from being put to death for committing a capital crime and that the government may consider “retribution and the possibility of deterrence” when it seeks capital punishment for a crime that so warrants it.

Gregg v. Georgia , 428 U.S. 153 (1976).
In other words, there is a greater good—more safety and security—that may be more important than sparing the life of an individual who has committed a heinous crime.

Yet the Court has also put limits on the ability to impose the death penalty, ruling, for example, that the government may not execute a person with cognitive disabilities, a person who was under eighteen at the time of the crime, or a child rapist who did not kill his victim.

Atkins v. Virginia , 536 U.S. 304 (2002); Roper v. Simmons , 543 U.S. 551 (2005); Kennedy v. Louisiana , 554 U.S. 407 (2008).
So the job of the courts on any given issue is never quite done, as justices continuously keep their eye on government laws, actions, and policy changes as cases are brought to them and then decide whether those laws, actions, and policies can stand or must go. Even with an issue such as the death penalty, about which the Court has made several rulings, there is always the possibility that further judicial interpretation of what does (or does not) violate the Constitution will be needed.

This happened, for example, as recently as 2015 in a case involving the use of lethal injection as capital punishment in the state of Oklahoma, where death-row inmates are put to death through the use of three drugs—a sedative to bring about unconsciousness (midazolam), followed by two others that cause paralysis and stop the heart. A group of these inmates challenged the use of midazolam as unconstitutional. They argued that since it could not reliably cause unconsciousness, its use constituted an Eighth Amendment violation against cruel and unusual punishment and should be stopped by the courts. The Supreme Court rejected the inmates’ claims, ruling that Oklahoma could continue to use midazolam as part of its three-drug protocol.

Glossip v. Gross , 576 U.S. __ (2015).
But with four of the nine justices dissenting from that decision, a sharply divided Court leaves open a greater possibility of more death-penalty cases to come. The 2015–2016 session alone includes four such cases, challenging death-sentencing procedures in such states as Florida, Georgia, and Kansas.
“October Term 2015.” SCOTUSblog . http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/terms/ot2015/?sort=mname (March 1, 2016).

Therefore, we should not underestimate the power and significance of the judicial branch in the United States. Today, the courts have become a relevant player, gaining enough clout and trust over the years to take their place as a separate yet coequal branch.

Summary

From humble beginnings, the judicial branch has evolved over the years to a significance that would have been difficult for the Constitution’s framers to envision. While they understood and prioritized the value of an independent judiciary in a common law system, they could not have predicted the critical role the courts would play in the interpretation of the Constitution, our understanding of the law, the development of public policy, and the preservation and expansion of individual rights and liberties over time.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, American government. OpenStax CNX. Dec 05, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11995/1.15
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