When Senator Tim Scott gave the GOP’s rebuttal to President Biden’s address to Congress, one of his complaints was that the President hadn’t re-opened the nation’s schools. He evidently assumed that America’s widespread lack of civic knowledge would obscure the inconvenient fact that Presidents have no authority over public schools.
It’s called federalism, Senator. Look it up.
Speaking of civic knowledge, I have frequently cited a poll from a couple of years ago that found–among other, multiple deficits of civic knowledge–that only 26% of Americans could name the three branches of government. Although the survey didn’t ask the question, I’m reasonably certain that even fewer understand why the Founders opted for separation of powers–or why they wanted to insulate the judicial branch from the wrath of the electorate.
Both the legislative and executive branches are elected, and thus accountable to voters. (We’ll leave for another day’s discussion the gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics that have substantially eroded that accountability. We’re talking theory now.) The federal judiciary wasn’t just unelected, it was appointed subject to Senate confirmation–and once appointed, judges serve for a lifetime. The theory–the hope–was that judges would rule on the basis of their understanding of the Constitution, and would not need to worry about losing their job if that understanding was contrary to the desires of the public.
Right or wrong–and sometimes they would be wrong– those rulings would be based upon the judge’s honest and informed evaluation of the merits of the argument.
Thanks to politicians like Mitch McConnell, that ideal of dispassionate and informed rulings meted out by judges insulated from partisan pressure has been breached, perhaps irreparably. The arguments about “term limits” for Justices, for adding Justices to the Supreme Court, and for other changes to the federal judiciary are responses to the blatant politicization that has eroded public confidence in and respect for the judicial system. (I’m not a fan of sports analogies, but I’ll suggest one: if an umpire is believed to be “in the pocket” of Team A, fans of Team B aren’t going to respect his calls.)
The ultimate “fix” for the current situation is unclear, but while lawyers, legal scholars and political figures squabble, we have increasing evidence that the current Supreme Court is ignoring precedent in favor of partisan ideology. A recent New York Times op-ed by a law professor from the University of Texas shone a light on the Court’s use of its little-understood “Shadow Docket.”
Late last Friday, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, issued an emergency injunction blocking California’s Covid-based restrictions on in-home gatherings on the ground that, insofar as they interfere with religious practice, they violate the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.
Reasonable minds will disagree on this new standard for free exercise claims. But a far more glaring problem with the court’s decision is that it wasn’t an appropriate moment to reach it.
Like so many of the justices’ more controversial rulings in the last few years, this one came on the court’s “shadow docket,” and in a context in which the Supreme Court’s own rules supposedly limit relief to cases in which the law is “indisputably clear.”
Whatever else might be said about it, this case, Tandon v. Newsom, didn’t meet that standard. Instead, the justices upended their own First Amendment jurisprudence in the religion sphere, making new law in a way their precedents at least used to say they couldn’t.
The term “shadow docket” was coined to describe that part of the justices’ job that involves summary orders addressing management of the Court’s caseload, rather than decisions on the merits of cases.
But recent years have seen a significant uptick in the volume of “shadow docket” rulings that are resolving matters beyond those issues, especially orders changing the effect of lower-court rulings while they are appealed. Indeed, Friday night’s injunction was at least the 20th time since the court’s term began last October that the justices have issued a shadow docket ruling altering the status quo. And the more substantive work that the justices carry out through such (usually) unsigned and unexplained orders, the more the “shadow docket” raises concerns about the transparency of the court’s decision making, if not the underlying legitimacy of its decisions.
In fact, the author tells us that this ruling was the seventh time since October that the justices have issued an emergency injunction — and that all of them have blocked Covid restrictions in blue states on religious exercise grounds.
If all three of those branches that few Americans can name are “accountable” to partisan passions–if there is no demonstrably impartial arbiter of constitutional disputes–America’s slide toward civil chaos will continue to gather speed.