Brief Preliminary Response to an Historic Supreme Court Decision

The Liberal Ironist wishes he had put out the short entry he had planned for last night in anticipation of the Affordable Care Act.  In essence, all I was going to say was “Whatever the decision, I respect the Supreme Court.”  As with the complicated 5-3 decision throwing out 3 of 4 provisions of Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law but retaining its core provision allowing State police to check the immigration status of people allegedly involved in a crime (but retaining the right to revisit the law in the future), the Supreme Court doesn’t due diligence to complexity and frequently produces majorities that care more about precedent, Constitutional authority and the proper function of the law in practice.

The United States Supreme Court is a body of 9 Justices, appointed by the President and confirmed by a vote of the Senate, and serving for life or until voluntary retirement.  Whatever can be said for our political system, it does not want for more democracy.  People often vote for their school boards and their sheriffs, and in many States they vote for county and State court justices, including family court justices.  (Often even the most-informed watchers of politics have no information about these judges on the ballot or what cases they have heard, but they are still given a vote on who serves.)  The Supreme Court represents a firewall against the uninformed sentiments to which we are always susceptible.  In a political system that often flatters our vanity and sows a crass mistrust of institutions generally, the Supreme Court represents a check on people who would set themselves up as experts without ever taking the pains truly to read, debate and think.  The Supreme Court remains 1 of the more-respected government institutions–which is interesting, considering we are given no direct power to choose its membership or to overrule its decisions.  We often respond favorably to those who try to sell us simplistic yarns–I may be a Democrat, but I don’t think Conservatives or Republicans not have a monopoly on naive ideas about policy–yet we tip our hand when we in the majority confer higher respects to those government institutions–the military, the Supreme Court–that are not subject to our approval and which make decisions for the country as a whole, based on expertise.  Our own elected officials sometimes fantasize about approval ratings as high as the Pentagon and the Courts enjoy; in the case of Congress as an institution, it is unimaginable.

I’ve also noted prominent elected Republicans–Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), for example–who have deferred to the Court’s judgment on the Constitutional question and narrowed their focus to campaigning against the Affordable Care Act simply because their Party and supporters don’t want it.

Though I haven’t taken a scientific poll of (and none is available yet), so far I am pleased to see that Conservatives haven’t simply taken their frustration at the ruling out on the Supreme Court.  This could be because, with rulings like Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, they still believe the Supreme Court is “in their corner.”  But I like to believe that the cheap populism we sometimes see on the right is neither ubiquitous, nor always as unqualified (dare I say nihilistic?) as it appears to be, and that millions of Conservatives don’t actually believe themselves superior legal theorists to the Chief Justice.

That said, I am well-aware that I am applauding politically-interested adults for not acting like children.  Should this column be read years hence, the Liberal Ironist hopes the impoverishment of our contemporary political dialogue will stand out as anomic.

But my point isn’t about being a good winner.  As I said, I wish I had expressed my support for the Supreme Court before this decision came out.  Yes, I want the Affordable Care Act to be implemented; however I also disapprove of the tendency to view our public institutions as illegitimate if they don’t expediently accommodate our ideological desires.  It is constraints on executive and military power, popular sovereignty, and the independence of civil society that makes our institutions legitimate, not policy outcomes preferred by “our team.”  The system works, not because a Conservative-majority Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, but because the Court isn’t a 1-dimensional, 9-point partisan wish-granting machine.  The Liberal Ironist already knew that, and would like to take this opportunity to thank the Justices of the Supreme Court for expressing themselves through principle rather than through partisan gamesmanship.  If there’s 1 thing we as a people could do to grow in our public character, it’s to listen with a little humility when experts in their field tell us things we don’t want to hear.


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