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We’re not supposed to like the Supreme Court

<h6>Photo Courtesy of Joe Ravi / <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panorama_of_United_States_Supreme_Court_Building_at_Dusk.jpg" target="_self">Wikimedia Commons</a></h6>
Photo Courtesy of Joe Ravi / Wikimedia Commons

The Supreme Court of the United States began its new term on Monday, Oct. 4 – a term which is guaranteed to be full of provocative cases and rulings. These upcoming cases deal with everything from challenges to Roe v. Wade (1973) to questions regarding the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and whether state aid can go to religious organizations. 

The Court is not only facing challenges in the courtroom. The American public is increasingly unhappy with its decisions, and criticism is only on the rise. According to a recent Gallup survey, approval rating of the Court is at just 40 percent, an all-time low. This comes after several controversial rulings. In late August, the Court did not block a controversial Texas abortion law, it struck down a federal eviction moratorium, and allowed colleges to mandate vaccines. 37 percent of Americans believe the Court is too conservative, while 20 percent believe it is too liberal. 

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Even more concerning, only 54 percent of respondents had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the Federal Judiciary. This lack of confidence in the Supreme Court reflects a worrying trend. The Supreme Court interprets the law as it should be applied based on the Constitution. If the public does not trust these rulings, America’s entire legal tradition begins to crumble. As Senator Lisa Murkowski noted, “the public needs to be able to trust that the judiciary will be that independent, unbiased check.”  

Responsibility for this distrust does not lay with the court, however. It is instead our own perception of the Court’s function and duty that requires adjustment. 

The idea of a Supreme Court was established in Article III of the Constitution, which says that the “judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court.” At its core, judicial power means to interpret the law and apply it to cases where the law is in dispute. That is what the Supreme Court does: it interprets the law of the land — the Constitution — and applies it to the cases that come before it.

But how does the Court interpret the law? This is a question with which many legal scholars and historians struggle. I believe that justices should set rulings based on their interpretation of the Constitution, and, in attempting to interpret those words, should look to the intentions of the framers for guidance.

This view is not unique. On Sept. 22, the James Madison Program hosted a Zoom webinar in honor of Constitution Day and the late Justice Antonin Scalia, asking: “What Does it Mean to Interpret the Constitution?” In his lecture, featured speaker Donald L. Drakeman GS ’88 argued that it is the duty of “the law-maker” to lay aside his own opinions and interpret the meaning of the law based on the views of “the law-giver.” He argued that when a case reaches the Court, the law has already been set. It was set long ago, by the delegates at the Constitutional Convention and the amendments which have followed. “What was left for the Supreme Court to do was to clear up any disputes about the language,” he said, “so that the intention of the lawmaker may prevail.”

If the intention of the authors is ignored, the Supreme Court ends up acting as a policy-making body. That is the last thing we want. Professor Drakeman noted some reasons for this: a small group of people is “unlikely to make sound and durable policy choices.” If this power were given to the Court, hugely important political decisions would be made based on whatever political party happened to be in power at the time. There is a reason that the founders and authors of the Constitution did not give political power to the Court. 

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On its website, the Supreme Court outlines its duty of “ensuring the American people the promise of equal justice under law.” To do this, the Court must interpret the Constitution, and this means looking at the words of the Constitution in the context of the intentions of its framers. 

We must understand the function of the Court in this way, as a body interpreting the Constitution, and not as a group of political figures who decide what is in the best interest of citizens. 

The Court often rules on cases in ways specific to the precise laws they deal with in order to avoid creating precedent in difficult political matters. This avoids political implications outside of individual cases.

For example, in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a same-sex couple sued a bakery for violating Colorado’s nondiscrimination law when the baker refused to bake a cake for their wedding on religious grounds. The Court ruled in favor of the baker, but not in an opinion which suddenly allows for lots of discrimination on the basis of religious freedom. Instead, the Court found that before the case had reached the federal level, Colorado commissioners who had dealt with it revealed an “anti-religious bias,” which the Court believed impacted the decisions on the case. Thus, they overturned the ruling. The grounds were case-specific, meaning that the case had almost no implications for any other situations.

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The Court makes decisions like this so that it does not become a playground for political matters. Had the Court decided, in a broad ruling, that it was totally constitutional for private citizens to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people on the basis of religion, we would be living in a very dangerous and unjust world. 

Congress is where laws get passed. The Supreme Court decides whether those laws are constitutional. And this is not always what we want, but it is — or should be — what the laws dictate.

So, when the Supreme Court rules on divisive issues in the coming months, I encourage us all to look at these rulings based on their legal implications, not on if they are what we want for our country. Do I think that a continued eviction moratorium because of the impacts of COVID-19 would be beneficial to many? Yes, I do. But are the CDC and Biden administration the appropriate branch for creating such a law? No, certainly not. As the majority opinion that came from the Court says, “if a federally imposed eviction moratorium is to continue, Congress must specifically authorize it.” It is not the Supreme Court’s job to uphold unconstitutional acts, regardless of their impact on the situation.

Instead of focusing our energy and activism on criticizing Court decisions, we, as Princeton students, should work to impact governmental bodies that are focused on promoting the greatest good for citizens and actually changing democracy. Productive political change occurs in representative bodies such as Congress or state and local governments. The Court decides what the law means. If we want different societal goods to be reflected in laws, we should not look to the Court for fulfillment. 

Abigail Rabieh is a first-year columnist from Cambridge, Massachusetts. She can be reached at ar5732@princeton.edu.

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