The U.S. Supreme Court's eagerly awaited decision on the federal health care law is the latest example of the court's impact on the lives of everyday Americans.
Despite the Supreme Court's power, average Americans know far less about its workings than they do about the president or Congress. The sorry state of U.S. history and civics education only exacerbates the problem.
The Supreme Court wasn't always the powerhouse it is today. In Federalist Paper 78, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the Judiciary threatens the rights included in the Constitution less than the Legislative or the Executive branches do because courts "have neither force nor will, but merely judgment."
Indeed, the Supreme Court didn't even decide a case until two years after its founding. During the entire tenure of its first chief justice, John Jay, the court only heard four cases. Chief Justice Jay had so little to do that President George Washington appointed him to negotiate a major commercial treaty with England in 1794. He resigned from the court a year later to run for governor of New York.
Things changed dramatically in 1801, when President John Adams appointed John Marshall, who established the Judiciary as a co-equal branch of government. During his 34 years as chief justice, the court rendered over 1,000 decisions, 519 of which Marshall wrote himself.
By the 20th century, it was the Supreme Court that put an end to state-sponsored segregation. In a unanimous Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, the court ruled that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
The Bush v. Gore (2000) case best demonstrated the court's expanding powers. In a 5-4 ruling, the vote of a single justice essentially determined who would be the president for over 280 million people.
Our framers did not intend for unelected courts to determine electoral outcomes. Understanding the Supreme Court's importance requires a working knowledge of U.S. history. Sadly, our children run the risk of being the first generation of Americans to know less about history than their parents.
On the civics portion of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the "nation's report card,"¬ù only 7 percent of eighth-graders could correctly identify the three branches of government.
Massachusetts' landmark 1993 Education Reform Act requires educational standards to provide for instruction in the major principles of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.
Despite this explicit language, in 2009, state Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester, proposed, and the Board of Education approved, a plan to postpone a requirement that public school students pass a U.S. history MCAS test to graduate from high school.
History had been slated to join English language arts, math, and science as a graduation requirement beginning with the Class of 2012. But Chester cited the cost of administering the tests.
Legislators, who appropriate the money, disagree. In a recent poll, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of those surveyed said we could find the $2.4 million needed in the $4.5 billion the state spends annually on K-12 public education (local taxpayers contribute another $4.5 billion).
With the Supreme Court about to render a decision that could send shock waves through an industry that makes up more than one-seventh of the American economy, there could be no better time to improve American citizens' understanding of their court. And there is no better place for Massachusetts to start than by restoring the U.S. history MCAS graduation requirement.
Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow and Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts think tank.