Tag Archives: New Republic

Speaking Of Power…

The New Republic has a new podcast, titled “How to Save a Country” devoted to ideas about a “new political vision and a new economic vision for the United States.”

A recent introduction began “It’s that time of year, a chill is in the air. Halloween candies hit all the grocery store aisles, and perhaps scariest of all …the Supreme Court is back in session.”

As Michael Tomasky noted,

We could see the last vestiges of affirmative action overturned. We could see a decision that gives state legislatures the power to essentially overturn federal election results. And we might see a more definitive conclusion of the right of business owners to refuse to serve gay customers. You know, the wedding cake question.

The interviewee on this particular episode was Amy Kapczynski, who co-directs both Yale’s Global Health Justice Partnership and its Law and Political Economy Project. She also clerked for both Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Breyer–experience that prompted one of the first questions: what was it like to work at the Supreme Court?

Gosh, there’s lots to say about what it’s like at the Supreme Court. It’s the kind of building that when school kids come into it, they often ask whether it’s a church. It’s a very intimidating place. It’s a very intense place to work. It’s a very small and intimate place. I can think of no government agency that has anything like the amount of power that it has with so few people working for it, and it’s a place about which I would say there’s a lot of secrecy. So some of that has been drawn back a little bit recently as we started to see both the leaks of the Supreme Court and also, I think, with more public attention, people realizing how much power the court has and how a concerted majority that’s really not afraid of public reaction can use that power.

I think one of the things that I was fascinated by as a young person going to law school and then working at the Supreme Court, is how people in power think about the power that they hold. And clearly, I think one thing that we’re seeing about the Supreme Court now is that you have a slim majority that’s very, very conservative and that’s very eager to use the power that they have to advance a vision of America that doesn’t look a whole lot like America today. It’s part of the reason they talk so much about 1789.

Kapczynski says we should be prepared for a lot of bad 6–3 decisions (several of which the podcast participants discussed) and that progressives need to think carefully about what we can do and how we can react. She points out that the Supreme Court is not the only body that can interpret the Constitution, and that the view that all Constitutional interpretation must occur there is a relatively modern phenomenon.

There’s a long history that we can look back to where there have been fights about the court, where the court has overreached, and where there have been ways that the public and our political branches have responded that have curbed the court’s power.

And sometimes it happens because the amount of public outcry actually causes those individual people sitting there and reading their newspapers to think, “Well, gosh, maybe we are overstepping, and maybe we’re really going to face the loss of our legitimacy or changing of our composition if we don’t pull back.”

Given the breathtaking arrogance and intellectual dishonesty of Justice Alito and the equally arrogant indifference to ethics displayed by Thomas, I’m dubious that the worst actors on today’s Court will recognize  and dial back their outsized contributions to the Court’s diminished legitimacy…although one can hope.

Kapczynski shares more concrete suggestions for curtailing our rogue Court, and those suggestions bring us back to the issue of power–how it is exercised, and by whom. It also brings us back to the importance of civic education/literacy.

So there are lots of options. All of them require lots of power, right? You need really strong majorities and committed majorities in Washington, so not just the presidency but a stronger majority than we have in Congress and the Senate and so forth to really take those kinds of things forward. And you do need a party and a base that’s more educated about why this is important, that understands the structural power at stake and cares about that.

If those considerable hurdles can be surmounted, Congress can look into the pros and cons of adding justices, imposing term limits and/or restricting areas of jurisdiction.

If Republicans control Congress after the Midterms, of course, none of that will happen.