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HOW TO REIN IN THE JUDICIARY

Provocation is no excuse for derangement. And there has been plenty of provocation: decades of an imperial judiciary unilaterally legislating radical social change on the flimsiest of constitutional pretexts. But while that may explain, it does not justify the flailing, sometimes delirious attacks on the judiciary mounted by Tom DeLay and others in the wake of the Terri Schiavo case.

DeLay is threatening judges involved in that case with unspecified retribution. He said that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy should be held "accountable" for using international law in deciding a recent (death penalty) case. He wants congressional hearings to reinterpret the "good behavior" clause of lifetime judicial tenure to make it mean not what it has meant for two centuries -- honesty and propriety -- but good constitutional behavior. Do we really want Congress deciding that?

DeLay is wrong about the Schiavo case. I think the law was a bad law, but the judge applied it properly. I think the judge assessed the medical evidence incorrectly, but it's a matter of interpretation, not of judicial impropriety or denial of due process. There is nothing here with which to threaten this judge or the judicial system.

But at least DeLay was coherent. Sen. John Cornyn wandered somewhere off the Pacific Coast Highway when on the Senate floor he suggested a connection between "recent episodes of courthouse violence" and judicial activism -- as if courtroom gunmen are disappointed scholars who kill in the name of Borkian originalism.

Let us have a bit of sanity here. One of the glories of American democracy is the independence of the judiciary. The deference and reverence it enjoys are priceless assets. The Supreme Court is the only institution that could have ended the Bush-Gore fiasco of 2000 with the immediacy, finality and, yes, legitimacy that it did. (True, liberals, who for half a century employed judicial fiat to enact their political agenda, have been whining for five years about this particular judicial exercise. But the critical point is that the ruling was accepted as law.)

Moreover, and more generally, judicial independence and supremacy are necessary checks on the tyranny of popular majorities.

Has that independence and supremacy been abused? Grossly. What other advanced democracy would radically legalize abortion by judicial decree rather than by democratic will through legislatures or referendums?

It was Ruth Bader Ginsburg who said that Roe v. Wade "halted a political process that was moving in a reform direction and thereby, I believe, prolonged divisiveness and deferred stable settlement of the issue." Whenever such an obvious sociological truth is pointed out, proponents of judicial imperialism immediately resort to their trump card: Brown v. Board of Education and the courts' role in ending Jim Crow.

But Brown was different. The race cases were cases of a disenfranchised citizenry. Millions of blacks could not vote. Millions of blacks could not participate in civic life. The courts had to act to end this aberration and injustice, and, to their glory, they did.

And they have lived off that glory ever since. The prestige the courts inherited from Brown fueled their arrogant appropriation of legislative power in areas radically different and suffering no disenfranchisement -- abortion, gay rights, religion in the public square.

This is all true and deeply depressing. But the answer is not to assault the separation of powers. Certainly not to empower Congress to regulate judicial decision-making by retroactively removing lifetime appointees. The non-deranged way to correct the problem is to appoint a new generation of judges committed to judicial modesty.

Yet the recent eruptions of DeLay, Cornyn and some of their fellows may, like FDR's court-packing overreaching in 1937, have a salutary effect after all -- scaring the bejesus out of judges, maybe even shocking them into a little bit of humility, something that does not seem to come to them naturally.

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