Because life is a series of edits

We the Pawns?

In Thought on May 20, 2008 at 10:20 am

My colleague, Ken Boesch, teaches upper school history and leads Westminster‘s team in the We the People competition each year (they’ve won Missouri’s contest the past nine years straight). One day over lunch, Ken asked me who I thought the ten most influential U.S. government leaders were. I immediately started thinking of offices – the President; the Vice-President; the Speaker of the House; the Senate Majority leader, etc.

Ken answered his own question: Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, and the nine federal Supreme Court justices. When I asked why, Ken explained that when Mr. Bernanke so much as sneezes, the markets go crazy (think of it as an instant economic stimulus package), and when Supreme Court justices are appointed, they are appointed for life and have no real oversight (though the Senate can supposedly remove a member, but it’s only happened once in the history of the court).

On the heels of yesterday’s post on gay marriage, I’m rethinking my initial resistance to the idea that the Presidential election in November may just be the most important of my lifetime (I’m trying to remember an election that wasn’t billed as “most important,” but I’m not coming up with one). Hype aside, the reality is that the next President could possibly replace as many as three federal Supreme Court justices – each for an average term of 20-30 years, which is a good chunk of living, indeed.

According to Ken, the framers of the Constitution are rolling over in their graves at the concept of judicial review – our modern-day practice of disregarding the original intent of the Constitution’s writers and reading into it our own. I drew the analogy that it’s the same thing we deal with in biblical studies – a proper hermeneutic (interpretation) has to start with exegeting (reading out) authorial intent and not isogeting (reading into) desired meaning. This is a major problem in both constitutional and scriptural matters.

With regard to the power of the judiciary branch, President Abraham Lincoln (referring in his 1861 First Inaugural Address to the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision) warned:

“If the policy of the government, upon vital questions affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court…the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned the government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.”

As much as I appreciate our democratic system, the judiciary power of our government seems its greatest weakness. We’ve just seen how a court can push through its bias at a state level in California, and it may not be too long until we begin to see it happen (if we haven’t already) at a national level in Washington, D.C. in the next few decades.

  1. Many would argue, of course, that we already beheld exactly that– 30+ years ago when Roe v. Wade was decided as it was. (I would guess that there were probably much lower-profile examples of the same happening long before– perhaps since the founding of our nation. That’s my guess, at least; I have no evidence at all!)

    That said: Craig, we’ve been hearing that the ability to appoint Supreme Court judges makes the next election the “most important” all of our adult lives. Especially in the realm of (socially) conservative Christianity, this has been touted as the solution to the abortion problem– vote in the right guy (sorry about the pun) and he’ll put “good” judges on the Court that will finally outlaw abortion!

    And yet for most of our lives a (social) conservative has occupied the White House. Still, we haven’t seen such judiciary activism, really, on either side of the political isle. Why do we continue to believe this rhetoric?

    I think your colleague is right about Bernanke– sadly so, since he also is a relatively unaccountable individual, and because the “Fed” controls only one aspect of so much economic activity that his sway shouldn’t be nearly as much as it is. But I think his assessment of the power of the Supreme Court is a prime example of “old school” thinking that doesn’t really help the process. In fact, it may even become a self-fulfilling prophecy, since it is only because we empower the Supreme Court (by our rhetoric) to act in an unaccountable fashion that they feel bold enough to do so.

    As for the a less-than-important election: I would put forth the 1984 re-election of Ronald Reagan. Not because Reagan wasn’t an important President, but because the election itself was a foregone conclusion. A 49-state rout that left Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro as barely a footnote in the history books. In fact, the most memorable aspect of the whole election (besides the enormity of the landslide victory) was that Ferraro was the first woman to have a nomination of the sort– and we can see today what a helpful impact that had on helping women get into political office, can’t we?!?

  2. Ed you are correct in that there were cases before Roe that started the slippery slope. I would point to the 1965 Griswold vs. Connecticut decision in which the court “found” the right to provacy in the pneumbras of the constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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