By Nikolas Bowie & Daphna Renan
It’s June again—that time of year when Americans wake up each morning and wait for the Supreme Court to resolve our deepest political disagreements. To decide what the Constitution says about our bodily autonomy, our power to avert climate change, and our ability to protect children from guns, the nation turns not to members of Congress—elected by us—but to five oracles in robes.
This annual observance of judicial supremacy—the idea that the Supreme Court has the final say about what our Constitution allows—is an odd affliction for a nation that will close the month ready to celebrate our independence from an unelected monarch. From one perspective, our acceptance of this supremacy reflects a sense that our political system is simply too broken to address the most urgent questions that we confront. But it would be a mistake to see judicial supremacy as a mere symptom of our politics and not a cause.
Contrary to what many people have come to believe, judicial supremacy is not in the Constitution, and does not date from the founding era. It took hold of American politics only after the Civil War, when the Court overruled Congress’s judgment that the Constitution demanded civil-rights and voting laws. The Court has spent the 150 years since sapping our national representatives of the power to issue national rules. These judicial decisions have destroyed guardrails that national majorities deemed vital to a functional, multiracial democracy—including protecting the right to vote and curbing the influence of money in politics. Even worse, the Court’s assertion of the power to invalidate federal laws has stripped Americans of the expectation, once widely shared, that the most important interpretations of the Constitution are expressed not by judicial decree but by the participation of “We, the People,” in enacting national legislation.
Picture: Marielam1, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons