How to Talk About Issues You Don't Understand: The Supreme Court

With the vetting of Sonia Sotomayor under way, prepare for the fevered cocktail-party banter by reading our shamelessly oversimplified guide.

supreme court
(Image credit: Charles Ommanney)

After four years together, Chief Justice Roberts's court, with its countless, contentious 5-4 decisions, is losing a member, left-leaning hermitic handyman David Souter. How will this affect the issues you care about? With the vetting of Sonia Sotomayor under way, prepare for the fevered cocktail-party banter by reading our shamelessly oversimplified guide.

By Yael Kohen and Lauren Iannotti


WHAT'S AT STAKE: Um, your right to choose? The current, conservative-leaning court has the power to whipsaw the nation with every new decision. While it's unlikely to overturn Roe v. Wade whole hog, it could simply nibble away at the precedent, making the procedure much harder to come by.

WHERE THE COURT STANDS: Scalia and Thomas would overturn Roe outright if they could. Their left-wing counterparts, Stevens and Ginsburg, speak in pro-choice absolutes—the latter has said that her conservative peers are trying to "chip away at a right declared again and again by this court." In between are Breyer, a nuance-loving lefty, and Kennedy, who has voted pro-Roe in the past, but lately swings right, saying it's "self-evident" that some women suffer profound grief and depression after an abortion.

YOUR SMARTY-PANTS QUIP: "Fine, I'm all for no more abortions—as long as it comes with universal postnatal care, parenting classes, a nursery at every office, condom distribution in high schools, and free lifetime admission to all Pixar movies."


WHAT'S AT STAKE: Whether same-sex couples can marry and enjoy the same rights as the straight folks next door. With the wind from Iowa and New England at their backs, David Boies and other legal heavies are hoping to bring the issue before the court and earn a national stamp of approval.

WHERE THE COURT STANDS: The conservative usual suspects are against—Scalia has compared gay sex to incest and bestiality. Even court liberals, who handed down victories for gay civil rights before the court turned conservative, haven't said same-sex marriage is a given. Kennedy, ever on the bubble, has voted pro-gay, but cautioned in one such ruling that the case did not presume that "the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter."

YOUR SMARTY-PANTS QUIP: "At the last gay wedding I attended, the grooms' tuxes were brushed satin, the centerpieces were Cattleya orchids, the palate cleanser was yuzu sorbet, and the DJ was Samantha Ronson. How could something so right be wrong?"


WHAT'S AT STAKE: Your right to bear arms and form a militia.But are handguns included? Should there be a waiting period to buy? Since both houses of Congress are NRA-friendly and prone to trigger-happy legislation, these issues are ripe for high-court consideration.

WHERE THE COURT STANDS: The usual split. Scalia says the Founding Fathers would have us all keep arms locked and loaded to defend our property. Alito (aka Machine Gun Sammy), Thomas, and Roberts are all pro-gun, with conditions. Ginsburg, Stevens, and Breyer are for gun control, the latter scolding that the Second Amendment shouldn't mean "the right to keep loaded handguns in the house in crime-ridden, urban areas." But their arguments may be moot, because tiebreaker Kennedy consistently votes pro-gun.

YOUR SMARTY-PANTS QUIP: "It says in the preamble that one of the Constitution's goals is to 'insure domestic tranquility.' I'm still trying to figure out how a loaded Glock in my thong drawer helps accomplish that."


SEX DISCRIMINATION AT WORK: The conservative court tends to side with employers on equal pay and maternity-benefits cases, but there have been surprises--including a unanimous decision to protect a harassment whistle-blower from retaliation.

THE ENVIRONMENT: The court goes case by case on eco-issues, sometimes ruling in favor of environmental groups and other times in favor of Big Industry. There's little chance Souter's replacement will change that.

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION: After decades of progressive victories, the current majority is rethinking race-based hiring and school admissions. Thomas, a beneficiary of such policies, believes they do more harm than good, and votes and speaks against them.

Dedicated to women of power, purpose, and style, Marie Claire is committed to celebrating the richness and scope of women's lives. Reaching millions of women every month, Marie Claire is an internationally recognized destination for celebrity news, fashion trends, beauty recommendations, and renowned investigative packages.