In this season of historic Supreme Court decisions, itís worth remembering that the independence of the court, whether its opinions are popular or not, remains a fundamental strength of our democratic system.
The big decision for which everyone is waiting this week is the courtís ruling on President Barack Obamaís historic health care law. The large question before the court is the scope of Congressí power to pass laws relating to interstate commerce. If the courtís ruling significantly reduces the elasticity of the interstate commerce clause, the power of Congress to pass laws regulating the economy may be severely limited.
On Monday the court handed down rulings on several highly contentious issues that are sure to provoke howls from both sides of the political spectrum. In one it struck down most sections of Arizonaís punitive immigration law, holding that federal law on immigration pre-empted state law. It left in place the section of the Arizona law allowing law enforcement officers in Arizona to check the immigration papers of people they suspect may be in the United States illegally. But the court found it was beyond Arizonaís constitutional power to enforce federal immigration law by detaining illegal immigrants.
Legislation cracking down on illegal immigration has been passed in several states, including Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Utah and South Carolina. The courtís assertion of federal power means that states cannot pursue their own separate immigration policies.
In another case on Monday, the Supreme Court upheld its own previous ruling in the Citizens United case. The Montana Supreme Court had defied Citizens United, upholding a Montana law containing limits on corporate campaign spending.
Montanans argued that the stateís history made limits on campaign spending necessary in order to contain corruption, but the U.S. Supreme Court refused to allow Montana to go its own way.
In a third case on Monday, the court found that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole represented cruel and unusual punishment and was not permitted under the Constitution.
Anger and frustration frequently boil up around the Supreme Court because the justices seem to be beyond the reach of popular sentiment, thwarting the will of the people as expressed through the legislative and executive branches. But it is a test of the maturity of a democracy if the people and their institutions are able to accept and live with rulings with which they disagree.
Over the years, the court has made rulings later found to be mistaken. Dred Scott was a pre-Civil War case in which the court found that black people had no rights whatsoever. Plessy v. Ferguson was the 1896 case finding that racial segregation was legal. In Gore v. Bush the court intervened in the Florida recount, throwing the 2000 election to George W. Bush. Liberal critics of the court have ranked Citizens United, which has unleashed limitless spending on political campaigns, among these historic worst cases.
The Warren Court of the 1950s and 1960s was one of the most liberal in history, outlawing school segregation, defending the rights of the accused, guaranteeing equal representation in state legislatures, among other important rulings. At the time voices on the right clamored to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Yet it is essential in a democracy to respect the legitimacy of the courtís rulings, even when we believe they are wrong. Otherwise, there is no check on the power of the Congress or president and the Constitution itself has no defender. It is significant that in systems where a president is assuming dictatorial powers, he or she frequently finds a way to dismiss high court justices who are not doing their bidding. That is a danger sign for any democracy.
Ultimately, decisions in a democracy are made by fallible human beings, even decisions by the Supreme Court, and our system of laws means that the remedy for fallibility is continuing democratic struggle. Over time, we know, wrongly decided decisions may be reversed. But respect for the rules keeps in place the system that is the means for carrying out that unending struggle for justice.
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