The fact that Americans can even have this discussion is a testament to the whole checks and balances thing. When a discussion of who has the power in Washington comes up, fans of a particular branch will often claim that “arguably, the President/Congress/Supreme Court is the most powerful”. From what I’ve seen and read, the most stable governments are the ones with mechanisms in place to keep any one faction from gaining an advantage over the others. In countries with weak or corrupt legislators and courts, often the military, under control of a President or similar figure, simply grabs power.
If anyone in the U.S. has ultimate power, it would be a two-thirds majority of Congress, plus a two-thirds majority in three-fourths of the various state legislatures, who in theory could meet tomorrow and vote to dissolve the U.S. entirely.
In the OP’s example, though, legislation in the U.S. is not simply passed by Congress and then tested by the Supremes. The bill first has to be signed (or vetoed) by the President.
The most recent major consitutional crisis (and actually one of the biggest in U.S. history) would be Bush v. Gore in the 2000 election. The legislators were spinning madly to try to find some way to resolve it to match their party affiliations and it took the Florida and Federal Supreme Courts to impose a decision. Interestingly, for a branch of the government with no enforcement power, everyone seemed to go along peacefully (though grumblingly) with the judiciary’s decision. In most countries of the world, such a close election would have involved gunfire in the streets. In the U.S. they just had the normal 2nd-Amendment amount.
So what was your question again? Oh, yeah, shoes. I seriously doubt the Supreme Court would ever choose to “reinterpret” a bill in the manner you describe. More likely, they’d clobber the whole thing as unconsitutional, but give hints in the wording of the majority opinion about what specifically bugged them and what they’d prefer to see next time.
Of course, long before the Supremes get a shot at a piece of legislation, a defendant challenging the law (or a state challenging a judge’s interpretation) can appeal a verdict to a District Federal Court (of which there are 94 in the U.S. and protectorates) and then (if the decision is further challenged) to a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals (of which there are 13, representing regions of the U.S. and protectorates) I can’t easily find statistics on how many times the Circuit Courts have upheld or overruled a District decision (or just refused to review it, letting it stand) and stats on the Supremes’ upholding, over-ruling or ignoring Circuit decisions are also elusive, but somebody must be keeping track.
Individual judges, though, can find ways to toss cases if they feel the law is unjust or unenforcable. Already, some judges have risked sanctions and penalties for refusing to enforce “three-strikes” laws passed by various states. In those cases, the state files the appeals, trying to find a court that would let their legislation stand and order judges to comply. In the California example in the cite, it got as far as the state Supreme Court, who shot down a particular clause in the law 7-zip. Their decision did not eliminate the three-strikes law, but it did render it toothless by upholding a judge’s discretion whether or not to count a defendant’s earlier convictions as “strikes”. Judges are extremely disinclined to let legislatures restrict their discretionary sentencing powers, and the more courageous ones make bold decisions contrary to the letter and/or spirit of what they perceive is a bad law, and hope the higher courts back them up.
Ultimately, the judges carry a lot of respect and a legislature messes with them at its peril. The judges typically win because they’re appointed to long terms or for life, while a congressman or state assemblyman can be voted out of office every two years. Hence the major fuss kicked up whenever the President nominates a federal judge to any level of the Judiciary. That judge will be around for decades so Congress has to seriously consider whether or not to confirm the appointment. Checks and balances.
Note: the above essay probably invites nitpicking, because I didn’t feel like adding a ton of asterisks and spelling out every possible step in the appeals process and noting every exception. So sue me.