The Journal & Tioga Tribune

This political perversion is at least bipartisan

Each branch of government makes much political hay


By Steve Andrist

By Steve Andrist

The conservative pundit got it right.

The role of the courts, said Forum Communications Columnist Rob Port, especially appellate courts like the Supreme Court, is to decide what laws mean as they are written, not as we wish or believe they had been written.

It’s an easy concept to get behind. Legislative bodies write the laws, and the role of the courts is to decide what the written words mean. Simple as that.

It’s not the role of judges to bring their ideology to work with them, but to plainly read the laws when there is uncertainty or disagreement about what they mean or whether they conflict with our state or federal constitutions.

If only that was the way things really worked.

In reality, political partisans these days seem to spend as much energy and political capital trying to get federal judges who, for example, oppose abortion or support restrictions on firearms as they do working to enact laws that represent the majority of their constituents.

If that weren’t so,,then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t have dug deep into his bag of political tricks to prevent a confirmation hearing for Merrick Garland, President Obama’s last nominee for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

If it weren’t so certain liberals wouldn’t have complained that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg should have resigned her position while a Democrat was president to ensure that a Democrat would name her replacement.

If it weren’t so, presidents from both sides of the aisle wouldn’t opine that appointing justices is one of the most important roles for the leader of the free world.

“How can we be free,” says the columnist, “if the law is not what is written, but whatever some powerful person says it is in a given moment?”

Point taken.

But does that mean that we care more about getting the laws interpreted the way we’d like them than we do about freedom? Because without question, Americans, following the lead of elected and activist party leaders, have bought in to the idea that one of the most important concepts of government is appointing judges whose ideology is similar to theirs.

Port complains that the ACLU is launching a multimillion dollar campaign to influence the makeup of state supreme courts and district attorneys in battleground states where abortion access is on the line.

It’s also true that the Federalist Society has spent decades and huge dollars working to get conservatives appointed to the country’s most powerful courts, notably the Supreme Court.

This amounts to a bipartisan perversion of the system in which our founders had the foresight, in order to maintain a separation of powers, to establish three branches of government. The legislative branch makes the laws, the executive branch carries out the laws, and the judicial branch evaluates the laws.

Instead we seem to have a system in which the legislative branch occasionally makes laws in between making political hay and taking credit for any and all federal spending back home. The executive branch carries out the laws after figuring out how to ideologically adapt them or to work around them with executive orders. The judicial branch interprets the laws to make them conform to whatever left, right or middle views the court majority holds.

Clearly that’s a simplistic view, and cynical. There is much more to it than that, and not every discussion, decision or action is suspect.

But it’s a slippery slope we’ve chosen to traverse, and the result too often is that elected politicians and their minions are focused on manipulating the system to get their way or to prevent the opponents from getting theirs.

With Supreme Court justices getting lifetime appointments to their seats it’s sobering to look at this dark side of American politics and wonder whether we’re too far down the slope to turn back.

Is there room to be optimistic about the potential for getting back to where we’re supposed to be?

Or have we by acquiescence agreed that this is the system we’ll embrace?

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