Sunday, July 4, 2010

SCOTUS

SCOTUS is the acronym for Supreme Court of the United States, also known simply as "the Court". Periodically there are vacancies in its membership and the President is called on to nominate, and the Senate to consent to, a new justice. We are that point in our history again and I thought it was a good time to briefly comment on my views on the Court and why careful consideration is important to American freedom.

Many will rail against "judicial activism" and urge support for a "strict constructionist"...also railing against "unelected" deciders of law and those who argue for the view of the Constitution as a "living document". To them I say, activism is vital to our national health and ,yes, the Constitution is a living document that we need to continually re-evaluated through the years. The Founders were not psychics - they could not spell everything out because they did not know what would come up. So they built in flexibility in the document so that it ,and we, could adapt to changing times.

The three branches of government- legislative, executive, and judicial -have separate and distinct functions and areas of power, and also have ways to check the power of each other. This is to prevent over-reach by any and to keep government balanced. As far as the judiciary is concerned their area of power is the interpretation of the law. They are charged with the duty to uphold the Constitution by making sure that all the actions of the other two branches (plus the local and state versions of those branches) are in agreement with the rules of the Constitution , because it is the supreme law of the land.

In order to do this the Court may strike down laws or other governmental action as unconstitutional. It does so in response to cases appealed to it from lower courts. These are brought by ordinary citizens who have not found relief from any other source. We work under the mantra of "majority rules, minority rights". The will of the majority acts through the legislative branch and that is vital to a stable country. But when the rights of a minority are being trampled on it can easily become a "tyranny of the majority" - think of slavery and racial segregation/discrimination that went on for decades even after slavery was outlawed. This is where the Court steps in.

Long standing tradition is important and legal precedence is as well. These are vital to preserve, for the sake of a stable society, and thus conservatism has its place. But liberalism does as well, coming from the same root as liberty, and seeing that only in growing are we truly free. It is akin to matters of faith where some are mired in legalism...those who won't do anything unless they firmly believe God has spelled it out as okay. Versus those who believe that God has set us free to live , giving only simple guidelines, and that if it is not specifically denied as bad we can try it. Sticking to traditions in law makes as much sense as in matters of faith. The faith version of this is the proverbial 7 last words of the church "we've never done it that way before".

I believe that the Court stands as the defender of the powerless against the powerful. But you say, don't citizens have recourse through Congress? Yes, the ballot box and Congressional phones lines/emails are open for all and we can make our views known. But when the majority opinion is destructive of the rights of an individual where are they to go but to the Court?

Just after Pearl Harbor there were thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry who were interned in relocation camps because they were deemed, solely on the basis of their race/national origin to be suspect in their loyalty to the US. Not for anything they had done but of who they were. They had no recourse in Congress, popular opinion of the majority was against them, so the only way to seek relief against unfair treatment was to go to the Court.

Unfortunately, this is one of the times when the Court failed. In Korematsu v US (1944) the Court decided that the exclusionary zones on the West Coast, excluding those of Japanese ancestry, were constitutional. The Chief Justice even said that the defendant was not excluded because of his race! It took us almost 40 years to apologize and say that the decision was wrong. Similarly it took over 50 years to determine that "separate but equal" rationale for racial segregation in schools was wrong (Plessy v Ferguson 1896 to Brown v Board of Education 1954). And it took Constitutional amendments (13th,14 th) and the Civil War to fix the situation and finally outlaw slavery after the disastrous Dred Scott decision in 1857. So it is important for the Court to get it right.

Some in our country would like to restrict the jurisdiction of the Court, even some (Texas GOP platform) who would like to do that in cases involving the Bill of Rights! My friends, the Bill of Rights is toothless without the Court. The right of legal counsel when on trial (Gideon v Wainwright 1963) or advice of legal rights when arrested (Miranda v Arizona 1966) were both strengthened by the Court. When popular opinion in reaction to current events (think 9-11) looks for scapegoats among the powerless there is great need for an entity like the Court to stand up in defense.

Some have said that the Court must be impartial. One justice nominee, who is now the Chief Justice, said it was to be an umpire, calling balls and strikes . This envisions a level playing field between the parties to a case. This can hold when there are two individuals involved. But when the case involves the law-making or law-enforcement group (like Congress, President,etc) versus an ordinary citizen, there is no level playing field. So the Court must take steps to re-examine the law and the Constitution and find out if there is to be relief for that individual. Law-makers and Law-Enforcers need no defense - they have the power. It is the individual who needs protection for his/her liberties.

For those who would blanch at a "re-examination" of the Constitution let me give you a parallel situation. For those of you who are people of faith, relying on a scripture for divine guidance. Have you learned all you can from your first reading of it, or do you often have the experience that you see new things/new truths or understand more each time you re-read it? I know I do.
Is it because God changed? No, it is because we have grown and times have changed and we need a fresh understanding of divine will to apply to our new situations. It is much the same with the Constitution. It has not changed, but the times and we have , and there is always a need to further our application of its principles and laws to the times we live in.

The same judicial nominee/now justice said that benefit of the doubt should go to the lawmaker/law enforcer. No, that is not how our system of justice works and he should know better. The benefit of the doubt should always go to the one accused "innocent until/unless proven guilty". An activist Court is a hallmark and defense of individual liberty and we should demand and celebrate that -today of all days.

Happy Fourth of July everybody! :)

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