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Access to Courts, Juries and the Ballot Box

Our Constitution’s vision of a government of “we the people” was quite radical for its time. The twin ideas of voting rights and jury trials are at the core of that vision. Six Amendments adopted since the Constitution was ratified expand the right to vote and three protect jury trials. The Constitution similarly allows for a system of federal courts where people can vindicate their rights under federal laws. But these constitutional ideals are all too often unrealized in practice: many Americans have difficulty casting their vote, the modern Supreme Court appears to disdain jury trials, and the Court has of late denied hearings in federal court to people with valid claims. CAC uses text and history to protect voting rights, trial by jury, and access to federal courts.

Think Tank

When the Constitution was framed, the promise of access to the federal courts was at the heart of a new system of government accountable to the people. The federal judiciary, with the Supreme Court at its head, would be the “keystone of the arch,” establishing a binding rule of law for the nation. Today, the Framers’ constitutional vision is in shambles. In filling a vacancy on the Court, left by the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, progressives have a chance to restore basic constitutional first principles that give Americans their day in court to redress legal wrongs and prevent abuse of power by the government. The story laid out in the pages that follow shows why this is what the Constitution’s text and history requires.

On September 29, 2011, CAC released "CAC Supreme Court Preview:  Tests of Government Power in the Supreme Court’s 2011 Term—With Even Bigger Cases on the Horizon."  In this issue brief, CAC previews cases that challenge the federal government’s constitutional authority to act to protect against sex discrimination in the workplace, Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, and to conduct surveillance using modern technology, United States v. Jones, as well as the states’ ability to take regulatory action that purportedly conflicts with federal law, for example, Douglas v. Independent Living Center. We note that the likely blockbusters of the Term are cases challenging the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care reform law, defending Arizona’s controversial immigration law, attacking affirmative action policies, and asserting the rights of same-sex adoptive parents. By June 2012, this term may prove to be among the most momentous terms in recent decades.