Q & A

Do you have questions? Send them to me at kim@bookjustice.com and I’ll answer them here.


These questions arose as a result of the recent election results.

Q1. Could the Justices change the ruling on an issue such as Roe v Wade or marriage equality?
Yes, they could. Under the doctrine of stare decisis, however, the Court is usually very reluctant to revisit an issue it’s already decided, especially if that decision was recent. One example of the Court overturning itself is Brown v. Bd of Education, in which they overturned Plessy v. Ferguson from 50 years earlier. Two other situations I can think of is Lawrence v. Texas (overturning Bowers v. Hardwick, which 17 yrs earlier had allowed criminalization of sodomy) and Roper v. Simmons (overturning Stanford v. KY, which 16 yrs earlier had allowed juveniles to be executed). I can’t think of any situation where SCOTUS overturned itself by granting *fewer* rights. Also, in all 3 of these cases, SCOTUS came up with reasons to overturn–eg, public sentiment about executing juveniles had shifted. I don’t know what reason they’d dredge up to overturn Roe v. Wade or marriage equality.
Q2. Could they modify or change an existing amendment to the Constitution?
Nope. Amendments can only be modified via new amendments. That can be done only 2 ways: either 2/3 of Congress approves it or 2/3 of states approve it (which has NEVER happened). All SCOTUS can do is interpret existing laws and amendments.
Q3. How likely is it that they could remove rights? (Since it seems that the Supreme Court has been used mainly to preserve/grant rights.)
Technically, they can’t remove them. What they can do is reinterpret the Constitution so as to no longer recognize those rights as protected. But I can’t remember them ever doing that. What they’re more likely to do is carve out exceptions to those rights. And eventually those exceptions can pretty much nullify the right itself.
Q4. If individual states refuse to recognize marriage equality, will it strip away the marriages from those who have already wed? (I suspect it might. Which seems very cruel.)

It depends. The SCOTUS decision invalidated all those existing state laws that refused to recognize same sex marriage. Whether those laws would be resurrected–and have retroactive effect–depends on the legal context in which any new case made it to SCOTUS. For example, maybe there would be a case in which a state official refused to grant a license on personal religious grounds. Whatever the outcome of that case, it wouldn’t affect existing marriages.


Q. I know the Sheriff is an elected official. Thank you, Tombstone. 😉 But what are the differences in jurisdiction between police and a member of the sheriff’s department? When is the sheriff’s office called in? Do the police and sheriff’s office work closely together or are they very separate entities?

–Posy Roberts

A. The policing system in the United States is really complicated! Some countries have just one police system, controlled at the federal level, but we have literally thousands of local, state, and federal agencies. Each agency has a specific jurisdiction, but they often overlap.

Yes, sheriffs are almost always elected. The people who work for them are called deputies, and the sheriff system dates all the way back to medieval times. You can read about their history here.

Sheriffs are generally elected at the county level. Their job usually encompasses rural areas. They also often run the jail. And in many cases, the sheriff is also the coroner (another policing job with medieval roots), which means the sheriff’s office is responsible for investigating certain deaths. In some places, deputies may also be charged with serving certain legal papers such as subpoenas.

Most towns and cities have their own police department. The head of that department is usually called the chief, and is usually appointed rather than elected. Urban police departments have jurisdiction in the city. This form of policing is a little newer, with its clearest antecedent being the London Metropolitan Police, founded by Sir Robert Peel in 1829.

So the main difference between a sheriff’s department and an urban police department is location and specific duty. Each agency is a separate entity, with separate leadership and sometimes differing philosophies and procedures.

But there are complications. In California, instead of having their own police department, many small towns contract with the sheriff’s department for law enforcement services. Furthermore, physical and subject matter jurisdictions may overlap. For example, if a corpse shows up, the sheriff’s office may take charge of the autopsy, while the city’s homicide detectives may investigate the death overall. In the case of a large or complicated crime, either agency may ask the other for assistance. And there are also many specialized state or federal agencies that could become involved–the Highway Patrol, DEA, and the FBI are a few examples of this.