It's been a big week at the Supreme Court: the Affordable Care Act upheld, gay marriage bans struck down, and a blow struck against housing discrimination.
The Supreme Court's rulings have had a profound impact on American society: their decision in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) ultimately ended legal school segregation; New York v. Sullivan (1964) established certain protections for the press. The profundity of the Court's influence is ironic given that when it was established it was considered very much a junior branch of government.
Some presidents felt free to ignore it all together. When the Supreme Court ruled that Indian tribes were sovereign nations (Worcester v. Georgia, 1832), Andrew Jackson supposedly said, "Justice Marshall has made his ruling, now let him enforce it," and proceeded to force the entire Cherokee tribe out of its territory in the Southeastern US.
The Court didn't even get a building of its own until 1935. Before that it met in a room in the House of Representatives.
If you're interested in learning more about the Supreme Court (seriously, it's more interesting than you might imagine) check out Jeffrey Toobin's book The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court. It's a fascinating look at the personal and ideological conflicts between Obama and the Court during his first term.
Another book, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction is a sad but gripping book about the aftermath of the Civil War, our government's betrayal of African-Americans, and the reprehensible role played by the Court in that betrayal.
And finally I recommend one of my favorite works of intellectual history: The Metaphysical Club. The book is only partially about the Supreme Court. The book's title refers to a group of men who met regularly in Cambridge, Mass. for a few months in 1872 to talk about ideas. Among them were William James, brother of Henry and father of modern psychology and Oliver Wendell Holmes, a lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice. Holmes had a fascinating, original mind. One of the narrative threads in this book begins with the impact of Holmes' Civil War service on his later judicial philosophy and ends forty years later with his dissent in U.S. v. Abrams—an opinion that laid the foundation for contemporary understanding of freedom of speech.
And if all that sounds like too much work for you, listen to a 2009 sound clip from the NPR comedy/news quiz show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me in which Supreme Court Reporter Dahlia Lithwick plays "Not My Job."