Belonging to a family is one bond almost everyone in the world shares, but family patterns vary from country to country. In some countries, for example, the grandparents are the family leaders. In other countries, many families live and work together as one on community farms. What are families like in the United States?
The family in the United States is diverse and changing, but still central to the identity and well- being of virtually all Americans. Here, the Drane family of Massachusetts enjoys playing a soccer game in the yard of their house. A. Diakopoulos
The United States has many different types of families. While most American families are traditional, comprising a father, mother and one or more children, 22 percent of all American families in 1988 were headed by one parent, usually a woman. In a few families in the United States, there are no children. These childless couples may believe that they would not make good parents; they may want freedom from the responsibilities of child- rearing; or, perhaps they are not physically able to have children. Other families in the United States have one adult who is a stepparent. A stepmother or stepfather is a
person who joins a family by marrying a father or mother.
Americans tolerate and accept these different types of families. In the United States, people have the right to privacy and Americans do not believe in telling other Americans what type of family group they must belong to. They respect each other's choices regarding family groups.
Families are very important to Americans. One sign that this is true is that Americans show great concern about the family as an institution. Many Americans believe there are too many divorces. They worry that teenagers are not obeying their parents. They are concerned about whether working women can properly care for their children. They also
worry that too many families live in poverty. In one nationwide survey, about 80 percent of the Americans polled sid the American family is in trouble. At the same time, when these people were asked about their own families, they were much more hopeful. Most said they are happy with their home life.
How can Americans be happy with their individual families but worried about families in general? Newspaper, motion pictures and television shows in the United States highlight difficulties within families. Family crimes, problems and abuse become news stories. But most families do not experience these troubles. Since the earliest days of the United States, people have been predicting the decline of the family. In 1859, a newspaper in the city of Boston printed these words: "The family in the old sense is disappearing from our land." Those words could have been written yesterday. But the truth is that families are stronger than many people think.
Four out of five people in the United States live as members of families and they value their families highly. In one poll, 92 percent of the people who were questioned said their family was very important to them.
Families give us a sense of belonging and a sense of tradition. Families give us strength and purpose. Our families show us who we are. As one American expert who studies families says, "The things we need most deeply in our lives—love, communication, respect and good relationships—have their beginnings in the family."
Families serve many functions. They provide a setting in which children can be born and reared. Families help educate their members. Parents teach their children values— what they think is important. They teach their children daily skills, such as how to ride a bicycle. They also teach them common practices and customs, such as respect for elders and celebrating holidays. Some families provide each member a place to earn money. In the United States, however, most people earn money outside the home. The most important job for a family is to give emotional support and security.
Families in a fast-paced, urban country such as the United States face many difficulties. American families adjust to the pressures of modern society by changing. These changes are not necessarily good or bad. They are simply the way Americans adjust to their world.
CHANGING AMERICAN FAMILY
When Americans consider families, many of them think of a "traditional family." A traditional family is one in which both parents are living together with their children. The father goes out and works and the mother stays home and rears the children. The biggest change in families in the United States is that most families today do not fit this image. Today, one out of three American families is a "traditional family" in this sense.
The most common type of family now is one in which both parents work outside the home. In 1950, only 20 percent of all American families had both parents working outside the home. Today, it is 60 percent. Even women with young children are going back to work. About 51 percent of women with
children younger than one year old now work outside the home.
Another big change is the increase in the number of families that are headed by only one person, usually the mother.
Between 1970 and 1988, the number of single-parent families more than doubled— from 3.8 million to 9.4 million. In 1988, nearly one out of every four children under 18 lived with only one parent.
Some families look even less like the typical traditional family. They may consist of a couple of one race who have adopted children of another race, or from another country. In many states, single people may also adopt children. Some people take in foster children—children whose parents cannot take care of them.
Another change is that families in the United States are getting smaller. In the mid- 1700s, there were six people in the average household. Today the average household contains between two and three people. A household is defined as any place where at least one person is living.
One recent change is that the number of marriages is rising. The number of babies born also has been climbing steadily for the past 10 years. Many experts see these trends as a sign that Americans are returning to the values of marriage and family.
HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN FAMILY
To understand why these changes are happening, let us look at the history of the family in the United States.
When the United States was established, more than 200 years ago, it was a big, sparsely settled country. Earlier, this land had been a colony of Great Britain. For many years the immigrants who settled in the United States were nearly all of European origin, but later people came to the United States from all over the world. Life was hard for these early families. The average marriage in colonial America lasted only 10 years because many people died young. Few people lived to be older than 60. A widow or widower often remarried many times. Even with today's high rate of divorce, many marriages last longer now than marriages did in the 1700s.
Later, Americans began settling the American West. They were looking for land to farm and for a better life. They left behind their homes, their relatives and their friends. When these settlers said good-bye to the people they loved, usually it was forever. These first settlers of the Midwest and the great Plains of the northwestern United States were isolated; often their nearest neighbor was many miles away. Family members had to work together and to depend on each other to survive.
The family formed an important economic group. All of its members helped to bring food and money into the home. They worked on a farm, planting and harvesting, or they worked making goods to sell at a market. Few people got married as a result of love or affection alone. Most people married because they needed a family in order to make a living. When people married, often they looked for the husband or wife who could bring the most material goods into the marriage. In colonial America, men who did not marry were
heavily taxed. Almost 99 percent of the population married.
Many changes came to families when the United States shifted from being mainly a farming nation to being an industrial nation. This happened in the late 1800s. In 1820, fewer than eight percent of Americans lived in cities. By 1900, about 40 percent of all people lived in cities. People began earning their money outside the home in factories. Instead of getting married on the basis of economic need, people could marry primarily for love.
As men and women became less dependent on their families for a livelihood, the number of divorces began to increase. Between 1900 and 1920, the divorce rate doubled; in 1900, there were four divorces for every 1,000 married couples. This trend alarmed people, but divorce was not new. The first divorce in the United States occurred in 1639 and involved a man who had married twc women. Still, divorce was difficult. A wife was her husband's property. If a husband abused his wife, she had few alternatives and sometimes a wife, or even a husband, would run away from a bad marriage.
The decade of the 1950s is thought to have been the most family-oriented period in American history. People praised and glorified families. Hundreds of thousand of young couples married. They married at the youngest ages in the history of the United States. In the 1950s, by the time men and women reached 21 years old, more than two-thirds of them were married. Today fewer than half of all 27-year- olds are married.
The 1950s was also a "baby boom" time, with very high birth rates. In one year alone more than 4.3 million babies were born. The average mother had more than three children; today the average mother has one or two children.
Today, some people look at the American family of the 1950s as a model or as a goal for the family. Many experts, however, see the 1950s as an exceptional period. They say that the marriage and family patterns of Americans today are closer to those prevalent during the rest of American history than was the pattern of the 1950s
Slowly some of the values accepted during the 1950s began to change. During the 1960s and the 1970s, some women found that they wanted more from life than rearing children, and caring for household matters. Women began to see that they had choices. They could have a job or a family, or both. More women began taking jobs. According to the magazine, U.S. News and World Report, the number of families in which both husbands and wives worked grew by four million during the 1970s.
The period of the late 1970s and early 1980s has also been called the decade of the "me generation." This is a time in which people have explored new ways of living. In the 1970s many couples began living together without being married. These couples questioned why they needed a marriage license.
For about 10 years, the number of unmarried couples living together grew rapidly. Birth control also became more widel) accepted. Couples were able to choose when they wanted to start a family.
Other changes also occurred. One change was an increase in divorces. In 1970, there
were 47 divorces for every 1,000 married couples. By 1980, this number had grown to 114 divorces for every 1,000 married couples.
In the mid-1980s, more traditional marriage and family practices returned. Today, married couples are the fastest growing type of household in the United States. Women and men are rediscovering the joys of home and family life. Even leaders who speak out strongly for women's rights are modifying their views regading the relative importance of the family.
Looking at the history of families in the United States helps to explain how the American family is changing. But what do these changes mean? Are they good or bad? In order to understand, let us look at what is behind these numbers.
About half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. These numbers are very high, as they are in many other industrialized countries. A divorce happens when a husband and a wife legally end their marriage. The number of divorces grew steadily in the United States for many years. Now, however, the number has stopped growing. During the past few years the number of divorces has been decreasing.
Couples in the United States may still be getting divorced at a fairly high rate, but this does not mean that they do not believe in marriage. It simply means that they are giving up being married to a particular individual. Most people in the United Sates who get divorced marry again. About 80 percent of all men who get divorced remarry. About 75 percent of all women who get divorced remarry.
United States divorce laws allow men and women to terminate bad marriages; getting a divorce is now rather easy in the United States. And while a 1924 study of families in one town in the American Midwest found few happy couples, in 1977, researchers who went back to the same town found that more than 90 percent of the married couples in that town said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their marriages.
Today 60 percent of all American women work outside their homes. This is a big change for the United States. Only 40 years ago, 75 percent of all Americans disapproved of wives who worked for wages when their husbands could support them financially. Today most people accept that many women work outside the home.
There are two reasons why mothers and wives work. One reason is that there are many opportunities for women. A woman in the United States can work at many jobs, including an engineer, a physician, a teacher, a government official, a mechanic or a manual laborer. The other reason women work is to earn money to support their families. The majority of women say they work because it is an economic necessity.
About 80 percent of women who work support their children without the help of a man. These women often have financial
difficulties. One in three families in the United States headed by a woman lives in poverty. Many divorced Americans are required by law to help their former spouses support their children, but not all fulfill this responsibility.
A wife's working may add a strain to the family. When both parents work, they sometimes have less time to spend with their children and with each other.
In other ways, however, many Americans believe that the family has been helped by women working. In a recent survey, for example, the majority of men and women said that they prefer a marriage in which the husband and wife share responsibilities for home jobs, such as child rearing and housework.
Many teenagers feel that working parents are a benefit. On the other hand, when parents have younger children, who require more time and care, people's views are more mixed about whether having a working mother is good for the children.
What happens to children whose parents work? More than half of these children are cared for in daycare centers or by babysitters. The rest are cared for by a relative, such as a grandparent. Some companies are trying to help working parents by offering flexible work hours. This allows one parent to be at home with the children while the other parent is at work. Computers may also help families by allowing parents to work at their home with a home computer.
MARRIAGE AND CHILDREN
Unlike their parents, many single adult Americans today are waiting longer to get married. Some women and men are delaying marriage and family because they want to finish school or start their careers; others want to become more established in their chosen profession. Most of these people eventually will marry. One survey showed that only 15 percent of all single adults in the United States want to stay single. Some women become more interested in getting married and starting a family as they enter their 30s.
One positive result may come from men and women marrying later. People who get married at later ages have fewer divorces. Along with the decision to wait to marry, couples are also waiting longer before they have children, sometimes in order to be more firmly established economically. Rearing a child in the United States is costly.
Some couples today are deciding not to have children at all. In 1955, only one percent of all women expected to have no children. Today more than five percent say they want to remain childless. The ability of a couple to choose whether they will have children means that more children who are born in the United States are very much wanted and loved.
If children in the United States are wanted and loved, why do they fight with their parents? At least this is one view of families that American television shows present. The other type of family shown on American television is one in which everyone is great friends with everyone else. These families seem to have no problems.
In real life, most families in the United States fall somewhere in the middle. Talk about a "generation gap" has been exaggerated. The generation gap is a gap between the views of the younger generation of teenagers and the views of their parents.
Many parents in the United States want their children to be creative and question what is around them. In a democratic society, American children are taught not to obey blindly what is told to them. When children become teenagers, they question the values of their parents. This is a part of growing up that helps teenagers stabilize their own values. In one national survey, 80 percent of the parents answering the survey said their children shared their beliefs and values. Another study showed that most teenagers rely on their parents more for guidance and advice than on their friends.
When American parents and teenagers do argue, usually it is about simple things. One survey found that the most common reason parents and teenagers argue is because of the teenager's attitude towards another family member. Another common reason for arguments is that parents want their children to help more around the house. The third most common basis for arguments between parents and teenagers is the quality of the teenager's schoolwork.
Arguments which involve drug or alcohol use occur in a much smaller group of families. Most parents (92 percent) said they were happy with the way their children are growing up.
How do problems arise in American families? One view is that American families do not have enough stability and that people move too much to have community roots. Of course, many American families remain for generations in the same town or even in the same house. At the same time, the United States is a mobile, adaptable country. People are willing to work hard in order to advance in their jobs. Good workers are offered new opportunities in their jobs, sometimes in a different city. Families must make the decision. Do they want to take the new job in a new town? Or do they want to give up the opportunity?
The thousands of American families who do decide to move each year may face a difficult time adjusting to a new life. They leave behind a community that they know. They leave behind schools that they trust and friends and family members whom they love. They leave behind a church or religious group. They leave behind a web of supports that helps keep a family strong.
In a new town, children and parents can become lonely. This loneliness strains a family. For example, the area of the United States where people move the most often, the Southwest, also is the area with the greatest number of divorces.
People in the United States know how hard moving can be, so they try to lessen the strain for these families. Many neighborhoods form groups to make newcomers feel at home. Teachers in schools also have meetings to welcome new students. These teachers might pair a new student with a "buddy"—another
student to help the new student.
Some children and parents mature from meeting new people and living in a new place. These experiences can bring families closer together.
Americans are actually moving less often than they did 20 years ago. In 1960, about 20 percent of the population moved. In 1987, about 18 percent of the population moved. These people moved shorter distances, too. Almost ninety percent of the people who moved in 1987 stayed within the same state. In families in which both parents are working, a family may decide not to move because one parent would have to give up his or her good job.
Not all families learn to work out their problems. Sometimes family problems can explode into violence. Twenty percent of all murders in the United States involve people who are related. Often people learn violence from their mothers or fathers. These people repeat the vicious pattern by abusing their children or beating their wives. There are also cases of wives abusing their husbands. Violence in the family is a serious problem in the United States, as it is in many countries.
People are looking for answers. One solution is to arrest people who abuse members of their family. Traditionally, police in the United States hesitate to interfere with family problems. However, the shame of an otherwise law-abiding man being arrested for hurting his wife has been shown to be effective in stopping him. Many cities and towns in the United States also offer "safe homes" in which an abused person can find shelter. Help is also available for parents who abuse their children. By working together in groups, parents can learn how to break the pattern of hurting their children.
In a perfect world, families would have no problems. Parents would know how to rear their children to be responsible adults. Americans and others throughout the world are trying to learn what makes strong families. Perhaps families can learn how to solve their problems. Researchers at the University of Nebraska have found some answers. Strong, happy families share some patterns whether they are rich or poor, black or white.
Strong, happy families spend time together. After dinner, for example, happy families may take walks together or play games. Strong families also talk about their problems. They may even argue so that problems can be resolved before they get too big. Members of strong families show each other affection and appreciation. Members of strong families are also committed to one another and they tend to be religious. Finally, when problems arise, strong families work together to solve them.
The values that Americans cherish, such as democracy and economic and social freedom, are values that Americans want for their families. Americans work hard to make their families successful. Today, however, families are changing, but they are not disappearing. Americans accept that strong, happy families come in many sizes and shapes
Suggestions for Further Reading
Berger, Brigitte and Peter L. Berger. The War Over the Family: Capturing the Middle Ground. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984 (cl983).
College of Home Economics,
Iowa State University.
Families of the Future:
Continuity and Change.
Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1983.
Gordon, Michael, ed. The American Family in Social-Historical Perspectives. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin, 1983.
Levitan, Sar A. and Richard S. Belous. What's Happening to American Families?: The Family and Its Discontents.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.
Scott, Donald M. and Bernard Whisky, eds. America's Families: A Documentary History.
New York: Harper and Row, 1982.
. THE LAW AND THE JUDICIARY
"Equal Justice Under Law." These words, which affirm that the United States is a nation governed according to law and that that law protects and directs the actions of all people equally, are carved in marble, high overhead, on the front of one of the most significant buildings in Washington, D.C. The four-story marble building, in the style of an ancient Greek temple, is the one in which the Supreme Court of the United States does its work.
The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices, and the responsibility and power of these nine people are extraordinary. Supreme Court decisions can affect the lives of all Americans and can change society significantly. This has happened many times in the course of American history. In the past, Supreme Court
The United States prides itself on being a nation of laws. The Supreme Court, which considers cases involving the interpretation of the meaning of the U.S. Constitution, is the country's highest and most powerful court.
James K.W. Atherton, The Washington Post rulings have halted actions by American presidents, have declared unconstitutional— and therefore void—laws passed by the Congress (the government's lawmaking body), have freed people from prison and have given new protection and freedom to black Americans and other minorities.
The Supreme Court is the court of final appeal and it may rule in cases in which someone claims that a lower court ruling on a Federal law is unjust or in which someone claims there has been a violation of the United States Constitution, the nation's basic law.
THE COURT SYSTEM
There are many federal courts in the system which has the Supreme Court as its head. In addition, each state within the United States has established a system of courts, including a state supreme court, to deal with civil, criminal and appellate proceedings. There are also county and city courts. Even many of the smallest villages, those in which only a few hundred people live, have a local judge, called a "justice of the peace," who handles minor legal matters. There are separate military courts for members of the armed forces and other specialized courts to handle matters ranging from tax questions to immigration violations.
In the United States, a person accused of a crime is considered to be innocent until he or she is proven guilty. The Constitution requires that any accused person must have every opportunity to demonstrate his or her innocence in a speedy and public trial, and to be judged innocent or guilty on the basis of evidence presented to a group of unbiased citizens, called a jury. A person who has been judged guilty must still be treated justly and fairly, as prescribed by law. A person treated unjustly or cheated by another or by a government official must have a place where he or she can win justice. That place, to an American, is a court.
ROLE OF THE CONSTITUTION
American concern for justice is written into the basic law of the land, the United States Constitution, which establishes the framework for the federal government and guarantees
rights, freedom and justice to all.
The Constitution, written in 1787, established a government of three branches. One of these is the judicial branch, and the Supreme Court of the United States is the most powerful part of it.
The other two branches of the national government are the legislative, which consists of a Congress of elected representatives of the people, and the executive, headed by the president as chief of state. The people who designed this government and wrote the Constitution distributed power among the three branches so that no one person or group of people in the government could exercise enough power to control the others. The procedure for naming justices to the Supreme Court is one example of how this distribution of powers, called "checks and balances," works.
The chief justice and the associate justices are named by the president. This authority represents great power, considering the major effect court decisions have on the legal system and on society in general. The writers of the Constitution tried to make certain, however, that presidents would name only qualified justices and also that they could not remove justices with whose decisions they disagreed. This insures the independence of the judicial branch. For that reason, no one can become a member of the court unless the upper house of Congress—the United States Senate— approves. The Senate does not approve an appointment until its members are satisfied that the candidate is qualified. Once approved, a justice cannot be removed by either the president or the Congress without very good reason, nor can the salary of the justices be reduced. The chief justice and associate justices, therefore, serve on the court for life and need not—and should not—take into consideration political issues or the opinions of officials in the other branches of government when making legal decisions.
WHAT THE COURT DOES
The main work of the Supreme Court is to make the final decision in legal cases in which a charge of violation of the Constitution is made. The Constitution gives certain powers to each branch of the federal (national) government. It also gives certain powers to the governments of the states, creating a federal system in which power is divided between national and state authorities. Whenever a charge is made that a person or agency in any part of the federal or a state government has broken the law, the Supreme Court may eventually be asked to decide the case. When it does, the decision itself becomes law.
Most cases—and some of the best-known— that come before the Supreme Court involve charges that individual rights or freedoms have been violated. Such cases arise because the Constitution guarantees these rights and freedoms to everyone.
Most of the rights and freedoms that Americans enjoy are guaranteed in 10 short paragraphs amended (added) to the United States Constitution in 1791. These first 10 amendments make up "the Bill of Rights." They guarantee freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom to assemble in public and to ask the government
to consider grievances. Among the other guarantees are the right in criminal cases to be judged in a public trial by an impartial jury, to be represented by a lawyer at one's trial and freedom from cruel or unusual punishment. Because of the Bill of Rights, police cannot stop and search or arrest a person without good reason, nor can they search anyone's home without clear cause and the permission of a court.
Elsewhere, the Constitution recognizes other rights. A very important one is the right to "due process." That means that no one can be deprived of life, liberty or property unless all proper legal procedures have been followed. Police, government officials and agencies and judges must be very careful not to omit or shorten these prescribed legal procedures in any case. No one person, group of persons or institution can be deprived of even the most minor legal right by the enactment of a law, by official action, by arrest, or in the course of a trial.
The importance to Americans of the Constitution, the law and the principles of equal justice is best understood through discussion of some cases that the Supreme Court has decided. While this discussion does not cover all the types of cases that come before the court, it shows the variety of decisions the court makes.
CHILDREN AND SCHOOLS
Most schools in the United States below the college level are public schools, though there are some private schools. Public schools are paid for by tax money and free to those who attend them. Each state has its own public schools for the children who live in the state. Rules for operating the schools are made by the state government, by lower-level school districts or by city governments in the cities where the schools are located. The federal government usually has no right to determine how the schools should be run. That doesn't mean, however, that schoolchildren do not have rights guaranteed by the federal Constitution. They have, as the following examples illustrate:
• For many years, public schools in some states were segregated. Some were open only to white children, while black children attended their own "separate but equal" schools. Plessy v. Ferguson, a Supreme Court decision of 1896, accepted the justice of this arrangement and ruled against those who argued that all public schools should be open to students of both races.
In 1954, the father of a black girl living in Kansas decided that it was wrong that his daughter could not attend a school near their home because the school was for white children only. Instead, she had to walk much farther to a school for black students. The father also believed the Constitution was being violated because he considered the education offered in the distant school for black children to be inferior to that offered in the white school, and he took the case to court. The Constitution guarantees equal rights to all, and says no state can offer privileges to some people without offering these privileges to others. In 1954, the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether the girl's Constitutional rights were being violated because she was forced to attend a separate and—as claimed by her father—inferior school. In this case, Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the court ruled in favor of the girl's father and several other individuals who joined the case and against the state educational system. Since that time, black children have had the right to attend school with white children in all states. Deliberately segregated public schools are illegal. • Many people from other countries enter the United States illegally. Among them are people from Mexico and other Central American countries who cross the border in order to find work in the United States. One result of this illegal border crossing is that many children who are not citizens of the United States live in states such as Texas, New Mexico and California, which border Mexico.
People who enter the United States legally and who intend to become citizens enjoy nearly all of the rights of American citizens. Officials of the state of Texas believed, however, since educating children in public schools is very expensive, the children of people who came there illegally didn't necessarily have the right to an education paid for by public tax money. In 1975, the lawmakers of Texas passed a law stating that children of illegal aliens could not attend Texas public schools. Some people in Texas thought the law was unjust. They sued the state of Texas and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that the law deprived people of equal rights—and since that decision no state has been allowed to deny public school education to any child.
R IGHTS OF THE ACCUSED
Many cases that come before the Supreme Court involve charges that the police or a judge has violated the rights of a person accused of a crime. It doesn't matter whether the person actually committed the crime or not; the Supreme Court does not rule on the guilt or innocence of those accused, but only on whether or not laws and legal procedures conform to the Constitution. The Court rules on whether the individual's right to due process— the proper and correct handling of a legal case—has been violated. If it has, the person must go free, possibly to stand trial again with due process guaranteed. Here are two major cases of this type:
•In 1961, a Florida man named Clarence Gideon was arrested by police as he stood near a small store into which someone had broken earlier and stolen some beer. Gideon was arrested because another man said he saw the theft take place. Gideon was not represented by a lawyer in court. He claimed he was innocent, and tried to act as his own lawyer. The witness succeeded in convincing the jury that Gideon was guilty, and Gideon went to prison. Gideon read law books in the prison library and then wrote to the Supreme Court, saying he had been denied the right to be represented by a lawyer. The Court ruled that Gideon was correct. It said that people who are accused of serious crimes must have lawyers to defend them, even if they cannot afford to pay such lawyers. In that case, the state must pay the lawyer's fee. • In 1963, a man named Ernesto Miranda was arrested in the state of Arizona. As police questioned him, Miranda confessed to a
kidnapping and rape. His confession was cited as evidence against him at his trial. Miranda appealed to the Supreme Court. He claimed his rights had been violated because the police had not told him he could remain silent or that he had a right to be represented by a lawyer. The Supreme Court agreed that Miranda's rights had been violated and his conviction was overturned. Ever since, police have been required to inform arrested people that they do not have to answer questions and that they have the right to be represented by a lawyer.
Even the most powerful official in the United States, the president, can have his actions declared illegal by the Supreme Court. One of the best-known examples is a 1952 case involving President Harry S Truman. In 1952, armed forces under the control of the United Nations, those of the United States among them, were fighting a war in Korea. Those forces depended on supplies from the United States. In early 1952, the union to which steelworkers belonged announced a nationwide strike of the steel industry. As president, Truman was also supreme commander of the armed forces. In that capacity, he ordered the government to take over the operation of all steel plants so that the supply of steel for the war effort would not be cut off. The Supreme Court ruled that he could not do this. It stated that only Congress has war powers, and not the president. It said the president did not have the legal right to control any industry.
RELIGION, SPEECH AND PRESS
American concern for freedom of religion, press and speech is reflected in the hundreds of cases that have come before the Supreme Court:
• A well-known Supreme Court case of the early 1960s involved a woman named Madalyn Murray, who believed that freedom of religion also meant the freedom not to have a religion. Mrs. Murray felt it was wrong that in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, public schoolchildren were required to read from the Christian Bible. The Supreme Court agreed with Mrs. Murray. It ruled that the First Amendment to the Constitution requires the state to be neutral in its relations with believers and nonbelievers. Thus, any religious exercises in public schools are unconstitutional.
The ruling in the Murray case was one of many that have caused great controversy. Religious people were offended that the court had decided that a public school—run by a government—could not require Bible readings. Other rulings voided laws that required prayers. (Prayer in religious schools is protected by the Constitution because such schools are run privately and not by a government.)
• A man named Eddie Thomas worked in a factory in which military material for the government was manufactured. Thomas worked in a part of the factory which did not make military material. One day, he was transferred to a department producing military material, despite his claim that his religion forbade him to do anything involving the making of weapons. He was told he couldn't continue to work for the company if he refused to take the new job. Thomas then left his position and went to a state government office to claim unemployment payments, which are made to people who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. He was told he couldn't receive the payments because he had quit his job for no good reason. The Supreme Court, in 1981, ruled that the government office was wrong. It could not force him to go back to work in violation of his religion and his conscience.
• In 1971, two major United States newspapers began publishing a history of American involvement in the war in Vietnam (in Southeast Asia). The history was in the form of a report prepared for high government officials. It had been stolen from government files and given to the newspapers. The American government went to court to stop the newspapers from publishing the report. The Supreme Court ruled, however, that because the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press the government could not do this—and the newspapers continued to publish installments of the report.
In 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled that, under a right to privacy, the Constitution guarantees women the right to have abortions—to end pregnancy by a surgical procedure within the first three months, and with some restrictions thereafter. Ever since, people who believe that abortion means taking a human life have tried to get the court to overturn that controversial ruling. By the end of its 1991 term, the Court had not done so. But it had let stand some restrictions on a woman's right to an abortion. For example, in 1989, a Supreme Court decision gave state legislatures some leeway in passing laws governing abortions within their borders.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
Not everyone whose case goes before the Supreme Court is a winner. Losers have included prisoners who claimed they were treated unjustly because they were locked up two to a cell built for one. The Supreme Court did not think this "overcrowding" was "cruel and unusual punishment," which the Constitution prohibits.
Another loser was a man who was arrested for calling a policeman a "fascist" and using other abusive language loudly in public. The Supreme Court ruled that freedom of speech does not give people the right to use words that unjustly harm the reputation of another person.
It should also be noted that not all Americans are satisfied with all Supreme Court decisions. Many Americans believe that the court too often "takes the side of the criminals" in declaring proceedings invalid because an accused person's rights have been violated. Others argue, however, that protecting the innocent is the real intent of these rulings, and that it is better to have a few criminals go free than to have one innocent person be jailed.
Not all cases are settled in the Supreme Court. Only a small percentage win the attention of the chief justice and the associate justices. Many cases sent to the Supreme Court are studied by the justices and then sent back to the court or person from which they came. That means that, as a lower court has ruled on the case, the ruling remains in effect.
Lower courts often hear cases and make decisions that are extremely important to large groups of people. In recent years, for example, Native Americans—better known as American Indians—have gone to courts to have land returned to them. The land may have been taken from them by white people a hundred or more years ago. In one case argued in the 1980s, Indians in the state of Connecticut were awarded nearly 400 hectares of land that had been taken from their people in the 1700s. In the 1980s, the land was owned by the people who lived on it, but the federal government awarded the Indians money to buy back the land and to open their own businesses on it.
CRIME AND DRUGS
Why is such an extensive system of courts necessary? Despite the respect of most Americans for law and the determination of the legal system to protect the rights of individuals, the United States, like all other countries, does experience crime. Especially in large cities, the crime rate can be high.
A high percentage of crime in the United States is directly related to the illegal sale and use of drugs. Drugs are smuggled into the country by organized groups of criminals despite intense efforts by the government to stop the illegal drug trade. Those who become addicted to drug use sometimes rob or break into houses or stores to get money to pay for the drugs.
Drug abuse has caused great concern in the United States. The federal government has worked hard to stop the growing of opium poppies, of coca plants and of cannabis (source of marijuana and hashish) in other nations. It has also set up special agencies, sometimes working with agencies from other nations, to catch the smugglers outside and inside the United States. Teachers and many other citizens work together to teach children about the dangers of drug use. Many government agencies in the states and private citizen groups work to help drug addicts give up their drug use and turn to useful lives.
COPING WITH CRIME
Concern about crime has also led to special government programs and special programs of private citizen groups to stop crime and to help prisoners lead useful lives after their prison sentences end.
In one program, young people are brought into the prisons to talk with prisoners. The idea is that prisoners can do more than any other people to stop young people from turning to crime. The experience of being inside a prison also might have a crime-deterrent effect on the young people.
In some programs, prisoners learn a useful trade so they won't return to crime when they are released. Government programs also encourage private businesses to give young people from poor families jobs so they will be able to earn money legally and will not feel that criminal activity is their only means of getting what they need.
Most states have set up funds to help
victims of crimes. This government money, taken from taxes, might help to pay doctor or hospital bills if the victim was injured, or to replace certain types of stolen goods, or to make up for wages lost as a result of having to appear in court to testify against an accused person rather than being at work.
Like travelers in foreign countries everywhere, visitors to the United States frequently worry about the crime rate. A visitor might wonder, "Just how safe will I be?" An American might answer, "I wouldn't worry about that if I were you. Here, as elsewhere, you should be careful—all of us should—but, chances are, nothing will happen to you."
Despite this caution, which includes locking their homes and cars, most Americans do not spend their time worrying about crime. They move freely and live their lives aware that, worldwide, wherever there are many people there is crime, and that by exercising some caution they will probably not have difficulty.
Another fact that an American might point out to a person planning to visit the United States is that there is much less crime in some places than in others. Crime rates differ from city to city. Within cities, crime rates vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. A visitor to almost any large city merely has to ask someone if a particular area is safe to visit. One study, published in 1985, compared the amount of crime in cities of all sizes around the United States. Its conclusion: "Some places are so safe you couldn't pay someone to assault you, while others are just plain dangerous."
Most Americans would also probably point out that the rules for safety in the United States are also rules that one should follow anywhere one travels.
In no country, regardless of its political or economic system, has the problem of crime been solved, though the American people and their government continue to search for ways to create a safe and more just society. One thing is certain. Whatever is done to try to decrease criminal activity, it will be done within the strict rules provided by the Constitution and watched over carefully by the system of courts. Summed up, those rules guarantee that which is most important to the American people: "Equal Justice Under Law."
Suggestions for Further Reading
Friedman, Lawrence M. Introduction to American Law. New York: Norton, 1984.
Friendly, Fred W. and Martha J.H. Elliott. The Constitution: That Delicate Balance New York: Random House, 1984.
Garraty, John A., ed.
Quarrels That Have Shaped the Constitution. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.
Germann, A.C., F.D. Day, and R.R.J. Gallati. Introduction to Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. Springfield, IL: C.C. Thomas, 1985.
The Supreme Court Historical Society. Equal Justice Under Law: The Supreme Court in American Life.