The Supreme Court justices are the adults in our democracy as the other branches bicker
Who would have predicted that the last true democrats in Washington might be found on the Supreme Court?
As partisanship and jockeying for electoral advantage become all-consuming, Congress refuses to do its job, while the White House reaches perilously toward doing Congress’s job as well as its own. The Senate majority and minority leaders no longer work together. President Obama and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan long ago gave up on finding common ground.
Already reviled by the left for Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. FEC, and by the right for not blocking Obamacare, the court instantly rose to the top of the presidential campaign agenda. Candidates boasted of litmus tests for appointing judges that, until recently, no self-respecting politician would have admitted to. The justices found themselves evenly divided and are likely to remain so for a long time — a scenario, if there ever was one, for gridlock and point-scoring. When Justice Antonin Scalia died, it seemed a safe bet that the court, too, would fall victim to partisan paralysis.
But so far we have seen the opposite. The justices, Republican- and Democrat-appointed alike, seem determined to insulate their institution as much as possible from the poison flowing through the other two branches. In this brave attempt, they are providing an example of how adults behave in a democracy. . . .
[Examples of adult behavior on the Supreme Court and the heat the judges are taking for it follow.]
None of this means the court will always find a route to compromise; the next inflammatory decision could come tomorrow, for all I know. The justices disagree profoundly. Roberts, for example, is suspicious of affirmative action because he sees it as allowing the government to discriminate on the basis of race; Justice Sonia Sotomayor will always be reluctant to limit government’s ability to help victims of past discrimination.
But while remaining faithful to their core principles, the justices are trying to find a way to make their institution work for the good of the country. That’s the definition of democracy, which so many others have forgotten.
The story captures a narrative near and dear to a great many American Democrats and democrats. We care almost as much as having a political process that is civilized in which the decision-makers act like adults as we do about getting our preferred policy outcomes.
Even if our preferred nominee may fail on the merits, we expect that Senate to hold hearings and if the nominee is not rejected in committee, to hold an up or down vote on the merits on the candidate. We expect Congress to pass budgets without playing games of chicken and causing government shutdowns. We expect political rhetoric that we aren't embarrassed to listen to in the presence of a 5th grader. We don't necessarily expect, but dearly want, politicians who agree on the facts even if they disagree on the conclusions that follow from the facts. We expect politicians to try to discuss their differences with each other in a civilized manner and in good faith, and for them to try to find compromises that everyone can live with in the end.
We were troubled by the incivility in the opinions of Justice Antonin Scalia while he lived. Would it have been so impossible for the supposedly brilliant jurist to make his point without being an asshole and a jerk?
It isn't entirely obvious how we got to where we have in terms of process values, or how we restore a more civilized process that encourages politicians to act like grown ups. Maybe incentives need to change. Maybe we need to change the way that politicians are socialized, as many parliamentary systems do with an interview process followed by a long stint on the back bench. But, it is hard to accept that our current process couldn't be improved somehow.