The recent SCOTUS decision regarding Hobby Lobby has made me start to question our entire political system. And before you think that this is going to be about religion or conservatives, let me go ahead and stop you. This isn’t about either of those. This is about our political system as an institution. And after the decision the other day, I couldn’t help but think about checks and balances and which branch of government really wields the most power.
A lot of people in this country seem to think that Obama and liberals think that he’s some sort of king, a would-be American emperor who is determined to lead like an autocrat. Never mind that congress has an equal part in this (In fact, Woodrow Wilson issued 10x the amount of executive orders that Obama has…Hell, even Jimmy Carter issued more executive orders, and we all know what a tyrant he was). The point is that, due to checks and balances, a president can’t act in that way. If a sitting president really were to rule autocratically, congress could easily impeach them, and the SCOTUS could overturn all of his or her decisions (all executive orders are subject to judicial review, FYI). But there IS one branch of the government that essentially operates under its own discretion.
The supreme court itself.
First an foremost, whereas the other two branches of the government are elected directly by the people, the supreme court judges are appointed. And while the members of congress and the president are subject to term limits and recalls, supreme court judges are in for life. Congress has to approve the president’s actions and appointments; the president can veto congress. But who vetoes the SCOTUS?
If the court makes a “bad” ruling, there are only TWO ways that it can be overturned. First, the supreme court itself. New judges are appointed, they look at a decision and overturn it. Or the people of this country can directly amend the constitution itself. That’s it. There’s no review process, no check or balance. It’s pretty much whatever the court says goes, regardless of what anyone else thinks. To me, that seems like a little too much power. How can one branch of government be allowed to make what amounts to essentially irreversible decisions?
Yeah yeah, the supreme court itself can overturn it’s own decisions. Big deal. “Who watches the watcher?” springs to mind. If they aren’t beholden to anyone–since they aren’t elected and serve for a lifetime–why would they ever be motivated to overturn a previous courts decision? In fact, the court (all courts, actually) operates under an idea called stare decisis–namely that previous decisions of the court should be upheld, even if the new court disagrees with it, and that the lower courts must always respect the decisions of the higher courts. On a basic level, this makes sense, because if we didn’t have some ground rules you’d probably get every judge overturning everything they didn’t agree with constantly and there would be judicial chaos. But it doesn’t reflect that the values or ideas of a society change (or the fact that even supreme court judges might have a bias or a stake in the outcome of a ruling…).
Case in point: Citizen’s United. I don’t know a single person who thinks that this was a good idea (other than billionaires, probably). In fact, I’d be willing to bet that 99% of this country would agree that unlimited money in politics is a bad thing, and that money is not the same thing as free speech. Citizen’s United muddies and dilutes our democratic principles. But don’t look for it to change anytime soon, because the only people who can change it are the people who made the decision. Here you have a wildly unpopular ruling that goes against every principle this nation was built on, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it, because there are no checks and balances on the supreme court.
The result of all of this is that the SCOTUS essentially operates under it’s own supervision and auspices, which seems about as undemocratic and as authoritarian as you can get.