Of all government institutions, the U.S. Supreme Court has traditionally only trailed the Presidency in public trust and esteem. There are several good reasons for this. One is that being appointed for life, the Justices are presumed to be less subject to the personal and political agendas that make the positions of politicians suspect. Another is that the Court has often taken heroic stances that made the United States a better nation and more just culture. A third is that unlike elected political offices, that of a judge requires an education and technical expertise that the average citizen does not possess. The Justices are traditionally accorded the deference given to experts. Perhaps the most important reason we trust the Court is because we need to do so. It was made the third branch to protect the Constitution against violations of core rights, as well as to be an objective mediator when the other branches, or states, or courts, reach an impasse. Of the many ingenious devices the Founders put in place, the U.S. Supreme Court is one of the wisest.
That the Court is accorded inherent respect and trust is essential to the stability of our government. What the Court says, goes, and the culture and society, including the most furious dissenters in political parties and interest groups, must follow a ruling and constrain its efforts within those boundaries. There have been times when the Court recognized that its unique credibility obligated it to intercede in dangerous conflicts that might otherwise escalate to social unrest or worse. The 2000 Presidential election was a potentially dangerous situation because the result in Florida rested on a margin of error that the available technology was incapable of resolving with certainty. Unlike the similarly dubious results in the 1960 election, the initial losing candidate and his party decided to plunge the nation into an electoral morass, in this case one complicated by politicized state courts, vague local statutes, confusing ballots, partisan media reports and varying standards of what constituted a vote, with the rotten cherry on top being a rare situation (it had happened only three times before) in which a popular vote loser was the apparent electoral vote winner. The Supreme Court stepped up and stopped it from spinning out of control, in essence declaring a winner. It was a courageous and responsible act, one that many (including me) predicted, and though it came at a high cost, one that exemplified why the Court’s public acceptance must be high—so it has some room to fall when it has to take a controversial stand.
This crisis was not the beginning of the effort by parties and activists to discredit the Court by impugning its motives and undermining the public’s trust, but it caused a permanent escalation. It was when the insinuation that a Justices nominated by Republican Presidents (or Democratic ones, depending on who’s leading the chorus of critics) see their job as bolstering that party’s policies and interests became routine. Continue reading