Wednesday, February 16, 2022

The Supreme Court, Constitution and Democracy

High Court Mystique is Shattered
Nicholas Johnson
The Gazette, February 16, 2022, p. A7

Who finally decides what is “the law”? The Supreme Court.

Justice Robert Jackson once conceded, “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible because we are final.”

Politicizing an impartial Court weakens our democracy.

Imagine as many as 30,000 parts, precisely engineered, manufactured, and delivered. If properly installed and maintained, they can become what you call “my car.”

Our democracy is also a creation of many parts.

At its base are what Alexis de Tocqueville [Democracy in America, 1835] called “associations.” We are volunteers in over a million non-profits and informal gatherings, from union locals and church congregations to clubs for gardening or playing bridge.

Next are the institutions I’ve called the Columns of Democracy, such as public schools and libraries to educate us; independent investigative journalism to inform us; networks from highways to broadband to promote our e pluribus unum; culminating in an expanding electorate and ever easier voting.

Of course, as Columbo might say, “There’s just one more thing.” The judiciary.

Most of our behavior is moderated not by laws but by norms, such as “Iowa nice.” There are norms for resolving most disputes. But occasionally, whether in business or in marriage, we just can’t “work it out.”

One approach used to be the challenge to a duel or some other form of homicide. Or maybe a war.

Another is like fighting siblings going to one or both parents to settle a dispute. We realize we need a resolution and agree to accept the decision of an arbitrator or judge.

And if 94 federal district and 13 appellate courts don’t agree about “the law”? We ask our “parents,” the Supreme Court, to hear our case.

Unlike the politicized executive and legislative branches, the Constitution gives justices life tenure, in part, to create a politically nonpartisan, impartial Court. In selecting which cases to hear, it may reject those turning on a “political question.”

With no access to military force, the Court needs more than finality and impartiality for public acceptance of its infallibility. It needs some mystique.

Like the building.

I served as Justice Hugo Black’s law clerk. My first day my wife needed the car and drove me to work. When she pulled up in front of the Supreme Court, our wide-eyed, disbelieving daughter, Julie, asked incredulously, “Daddy, you work in there?!” (Not incidentally, as I recall, there were no “partisan” conversations among clerks or justices during my year.) [Photo credit: U.S. Supreme Court.]

It’s not just the building’s exterior. There’s also the marble, high ceilings, hallway gates, black robes, the curtain dramatizing justices entrance into an imposing courtroom, the bench well above lawyers and audience, the secret justices-only “conference.”

Now politicians, journalists, public – and even justices’ behavior – are treating the Court’s justices as a third political branch (“liberal,” “conservative”). It’s as if they were throwing rocks, shattering the mystique and grand vision of the Constitution’s drafters.

Who’s left to be infallible? Only authoritarians?
Nicholas Johnson clerked for Justice Hugo Black and is the author of Columns of Democracy. Contact
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Infallible because we are final. Deborah Rhode, “Ethics in Practice: Lawyers’ Roles, Responsibilities, and Regulation,” Oxford University Press, (“An observation by Justice Robert Jackson applies to judges generally: ‘We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible because we are final.’” Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 532, 540 (1953) (Mr. Justice Jackson, concurring). 10. See, e.g., 28 U.S.C. Sec. 455; and American Bar Association, Model Code of Judicial Ethics.”)

30,000 car parts. Nicole Wakelin, “How Many Parts Are In A Car?” NAPA Know How Blog, July 2, 2021, (“The exact number of parts in a car varies widely from car to car, but what’s the average? Typically, you can expect that there are about 30,000 parts in your car, from the tiniest nuts and bolts to the engine block.”)

Civic Society. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

Steve Hoenisch, “The Relation Between Civic Society and Newspapers in the Writings of Alexis de Tocqueville and Robert Putnam,”,

“Associations Matter,” The Center for Association Leadership, 2012,

Columbo. Columbo, Wikipedia, (“Columbo is an American crime drama television series starring Peter Falk as Columbo, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. … He often leaves a room only to return with the catchphrase "Just one more thing" to ask a critical question.”)

Number of federal district and circuit courts. Offices of the United States Attorneys, “Introduction To The Federal Court System,” (“There are 94 district courts, 13 circuit courts, and one Supreme Court throughout the country.”)

“Political Question” Doctrine. “Political Question Doctrine,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, (“Federal courts will refuse to hear a case if they find that it presents a political question. This doctrine refers to the idea that an issue is so politically charged that federal courts, which are typically viewed as the apolitical branch of government, should not hear the issue.”)

Court as Third Political Branch. Jeffrey Rosen, “The Court Loses Its Chief Pragmatist; With the upcoming retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer, the country moves into a more ideologically divided future,” The Atlantic, January 26, 2022,

“Public’s Views of Supreme Court Turned More Negative Before News of Breyer’s Retirement; 84% say justices should not bring their political views into decisions,” Pew Research Center, Feb. 2, 2022, (from August 2020 to January 2022, approval of Court dropped from 70% favorable to 54%; lowest in 40 years)

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Additional Related Material Not Used Directly

Today’s court justices: name, BDY, year appointed, home, law school:

Google search: "Supreme Court" AND (political OR politics)

Federalist No. 78 discusses the power of judicial review. It argues that the federal courts have the job of determining whether acts of Congress are constitutional and what must be done if government is faced with the things that are done on the contrary of the Constitution.

Why is Federalist 51 important? Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments.” Madison wrote Federalist 51 to explain how separation of powers with checks and balances protects liberty. Madison borrowed the concept of separation of powers from Montesquieu, a French political philosopher.Sep 6, 2011

Federalist No 81 - The Avalon Project › fed81 The Federalist Papers : No. 81 ... But the errors and usurpations of the Supreme Court of the United States will be uncontrollable and remediless.

Supreme Court of the United States › DocketPDFPDF Jan 31, 2019 — to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ... Madison James, Federalist 47, THE FEDERALIST. PAPERS. 25 pages

ABA’s “landmark cases” -

Lifetime appointments related to non-political decisions - Hamilton's main point in Federalist #78 is that a lifetime appointment will give Federal Justices the ability to work objectively on behalf of the people. If they were to seek reelection, they might act in bad faith in an effort to retain the office. May 1, 2020 Lifetime Appointments for the Court - Federalist #78 - Founder ...

Google search - "Constitutional Convention" 1787 (judges OR "judicial branch" OR judiciary OR "supreme court")

Debate from the Constitutional Convention regarding the function of the judiciary (July 21, 1787) -

See also:

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Sunday, February 06, 2022

It CAN Happen Here

The Republican Party is currently split between followers of former president Donald Trump, and those rejecting Trump – who more closely resemble the Republicans of my days in Washington – men and women who put the preservation of democracy uber alles, above their own reelection and fundraising.

Some Republicans in the latter camp have come together in “The Lincoln Project.” [] “The Lincoln Project is an American political action committee (PAC) formed in late 2019 by former and incumbent Republicans.” [https://en.wikipedia/wiki/The_Lincoln_Project]

One of the Lincoln Project’s undertakings is the production of videos. One, “Bloodlines,” portrays how democracies have – and can again – be transformed into authoritarian states. That video is embedded below where you can watch it.

It is preceded in this blog post with the famous poem, “First They Came” – which will take on even more meaning after you have watched the video.

-- Nicholas Johnson, February 6, 2022

First They Came

German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

"Bloodlines," The Lincoln Project, January 22, 2022

January 6, 2021

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