Finally the U.S. Supreme Court gets its due, albeit only for the next few days, with its review of the Affordable Care Act this week.
For years, the Court has been out of reach for most primarily due to a lack of understanding on the part of the American people. As its sister branches have opened themselves up to constant media coverage – usually to advance their own agendas – the nine members of the High Court willingly and purposefully remain locked up in their white marble palace affecting public policy in a way that goes far beyond a sound bite and the 24-hour news cycle.
These are the people that make the decisions that last a generation; this is the institution that we must strive to understand and whose words we must begin to know.
As with any human institution, sometimes the Court gets it wrong. This is the same body that denied citizenship based on race (Dred Scott v. Sandford), wrongfully assumed that separate could be equal (Plessy v. Ferguson), and confirmed that citizens could be denied freedom because of their ethnicity (Korematsu v. United States). More recently, the Court’s ruling in Citizens United that corporations were entitled to the same First Amendment rights to free speech as ordinary citizens unleashed a flurry of dirty dollars into this year’s presidential election, effectively warranting an asterisk for Campaign 2012 in the history books.
Nonetheless, this is also the Court that gave us the genius of Marbury v. Madison, the humanity of Brown v. Board, and the complexity of Griswold v. Connecticut. The U.S. Supreme Court is a group of individuals committed to understanding how our system of government – based on an 18th century document written by business-savvy elites – can survive and adapt in a modern age. These women and men understand the weight on their shoulders and carry on the legacy of vibrant and productive discourse that has made our country great, a concept that is too frequently absent from government today.
So why then are Americans so unfamiliar with this bastion of democracy?
Essentially they are because many deem it too hard to understand. How many have ever actually listened to an oral argument? The questioning, the legal jargon, the nuance, and the banter make the whole process quite uninviting. How many have ever actually read a court decision, or, dare I ask, a dissenting opinion? Again, the wording, the complexity of argument, the depth and breadth, heck, even the font, make these documents seem untouchable. In 1928, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.” Wouldn’t it have been simpler to write, “Beware of bad people”?
But therein lies the problem: How much do we challenge ourselves to think critically and process complex ideas? In some ways, the words written by the nine justices are among the best that we produce as Americans. Yet still their words remain outside the purview of most citizens. In a recent survey conducted by C-SPAN, less than half of all Americans could name one Supreme Court justice. Well I would suggest that we not only get to know these great thinkers, but even more importantly that we challenge ourselves to get to know their words. Never before in our history have the proceedings and writings of the Supreme Court been so easily accessible.
While I understand that vampires and weapon-wielding teens fighting to the death may be a tad more engaging, we cannot neglect the left side of our brain that craves logic and reasoning. So even after the news cameras leave and the judicial process drifts into the back (or completely out of) our minds, consider getting to know the Court by spending a little quiet time sifting through an old case. Your brain will thank you for it later and, if you’re lucky, it might help you show off your knowledge at trivia night.