Britain's new supreme court

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MARCO WERMAN: It's the first day of business for the new supreme court today. We're not talking about the one in Washington. We're talking about another court that's taking a historic step. Today's the first day that the newly created supreme court of the United Kingdom is hearing cases, and it's taken a long, long time to get here. The World's Laura Lynch reports from London.

LAURA LYNCH: Today in London, across the road from Parliament, centuries of legal history shifted within a matter of seconds.

COURT CLERK: All rise.

LYNCH: The start of the first case argued before Britain's brand new supreme court, sworn in just days before.

NICHOLAS ADDISON: I, Nicholas Addison, Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers, do swear by Almighty God that I will well and truly serve our sovereign lady, Queen Elizabeth the Second, in the office of president of the supreme court of the United Kingdom...

LYNCH: In case you missed the name and the very British title, that's Nicholas Addison, Baron Phillips of Worth Matravers. Phillips now has another title: president of the new court, the rough equivalent of Chief Justice John Roberts.

ADDISON: It's really the last step in the separation of powers in this country. We've come to that fairly gently and gradually.

LYNCH: That's one way of saying it. Up until now, top judges in Britain were appointed to the House of Lords. Now, they've got their very own courthouse. They are officially independent of Parliament. Legal historian Peter Hennessy recites a quote from more than a hundred years ago to illustrate just how long the country has been considering the change.

PETER HENNESSY: "The supreme court of the English people ought to be a great conspicuous tribunal, ought to rule all other courts, ought not to be hidden beneath the robes of a legislative assembly," i.e. the House of Lords. It's come through quite rapidly really. That was only 1867, and it's now only 2009.

LYNCH: Okay, they're out from under the House of Lords. They've even got their own designer robes. But they're still doing largely the same job, monitoring the application of laws created by Parliament. And since Britain doesn't have a written bill of rights, like the United States, the court doesn't have the power to strike down laws as unconstitutional. Still some, like appeals court judge David Neuberger, worry all the new trappings of the court could go to the judges' heads.

DAVID NEUBERGER: The supreme court in its new building, under its new name, separated from Parliament could start to become more powerful, to start to try to assert itself in a way that is to my mind foreign to the British system, and would lead to a real risk of confrontation between the judiciary and the executive, which would be unfortunate.

LYNCH: That American style assertiveness may invite confrontation between the court and the government. But one of the new justices, Lawrence Collins isn't worried about going foreign. In fact, Collins believes it's only a matter of time before this supreme court starts to resemble something more like the one sitting in Washington.

LAWRENCE COLLINS: It seems to me that gradually we will evolve into a different type of body, perhaps not as pivotal as the American supreme court, but certainly playing a much more central role in the legal system, and approaching the American ideal of a government of laws and not of men.

LYNCH: This court is going some way toward raising its profile. Its hearings are televised, though it's doubtful dry legal arguments will win big ratings. But it may be important to make the effort. The justices will take on cases that are far-reaching and divisive, perhaps on such subjects as anti-terror laws or issues surrounding the right to die. Constitutional expert Robert Halzell of the University College of London, says that will likely bring on another, American style debate.

ROBERT HALZELL: As the new supreme court hears more high profile and more controversial cases, particularly cases about social or ethical issues, then I think people increasingly will begin to ask, "Who are these justices and how did they get to be appointed?"

LYNCH: Those justices sitting now , all white, all male except for one woman, are appointed by the queen on recommendation from the prime minister. No one is talking about implementing US. style confirmation hearings, at least not yet. After all, this first step toward creating the court took hundreds of years. For the World, I'm Laura Lynch in London.