Obama blocked by the Supreme Court?

Can’t help reflecting on the limits of the power of a US president. Obama controls the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. But that’s not enough since unless the current balance in the Supreme Court is altered there is a limit to how much he can change America.

Obama surrounded by judges that can actually make a deeper mark on America than a president. Surely it can't be right that an unelected judge should wield such power?

Once confirmed by the Senate, justices sit for life and rule as they please, regardless of the expectations of the president who nominated them or the promises they gave the Senate in confirmation hearings. A long-serving justice can actually make a deeper mark on America than a president. Surely it can’t be right that an unelected judge should wield such power?

It is actually possible that that the current 5-4 right-of-centre court might yet put a spoke into Obama’s health care reform. More than 20 states are actually joining together to argue that requiring everyone to buy health care insurance violates the constitution.

The same court recently found Chicago’s handgun prohibition unconstitutional. The ruling 5-4 exactly mirrors one in 2008, which doesn’t make it right. It’s not law abiding US citizens guarding their homes that are the main beneficiaries of such a ruling but criminals and arms manufacturers.

Is it really right that politically appointed judges with ideological agendas can overturn decisions taken by democratically elected politicians? Sure, a justice is boxed in by the other eight judges on the bench, the words of the constitution and the rules of jurisprudence. But that still leaves ample latitude.

The worst was the January 21st 2010 ruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, where the Supreme Court decided that corporations are persons, hence “enabling them to buy elections and run the government”.

From what I understand the Supreme Court has historically decided its controversial cases unanimously or by wide majorities, but the current Roberts Court routinely overturns longstanding precedent with a 5-4 majority.

“There may be judges on the court who have a particular mission right now and are selectively knocking out precedent that does not coincide with their ideological views,” Senator Whitehouse (D) said.

Am not surprised that democrats, including Obama, are criticizing the court. The judges really give the impression they favour corporate interests over ordinary Americans. A current American movement is hence aiming to firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.

Considering the power of the court I guess we have to be grateful that Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority in the 6-to-3 decision, said the ban on providing assistance to terrorist groups did not violate the First Amendment.

Let’s see what their decision will be on Obama’s health care reform? And I wonder how long will it take before some group will claim that the recent financial reform bill is unconstitutional? That the bill will be challenged in the Supreme Court must be a certainty. Did the founding fathers really intend for politically appointed judges to have more power than the president by being able to block legislation that go against their personal ideology? Wasn’t their intention that the judges should be impartial and objective? If so, maybe it’s time to make the judges accountable to the American people?

(Photo: Flickr – Obama-Biden-Transition-Project)

28 thoughts on “Obama blocked by the Supreme Court?

  1. I am one of those who view the Constitution as a "living document". Society today is qualitatively different than it was 200 years ago and will probably be just as different 200 years from now. Our Constitution needs to be able to adapt, slowly. Remember that the Justices do not live in a vacuum and are to some degree influenced by the society around them. I will always remember that without the Supreme Court, we might still have segregation as the law of the land.

    1. Glad we agree Tim.

      A society definitely needs checks and balances such as the US Supreme Court.

      However, the ideological agenda of some of the current justices result in judgements that are detrimental to American society. To equal a company with a person just makes sure nobody will get elected without being in the pockets of corporate sponsors. Am aware that it's been like that for a long time but now it will escalate. Democracy will suffer at the expense of the American people, which is contrary to the intentions of the founding fathers. But that's US society at the moment ,as you say.

  2. As I read the article, and the posts, it is clear there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the system.

    The point of having three branches of government was to prevent, as much as possible, the tyranny of "one party rule" or a dictator. Congress legislates new law but either the President or the Supreme Court can block them; the President's power is held in check by both Congress (overriding his veto) or by the Supreme Court (holding his actions unconstitutional); Supreme Court rulings can be reversed by Congress together with the States (constitutional amendments).

    Supreme Court Justices, and Federal District judges, are appointed to a "life" term to minimize, and hopefully remove, any influence arising from the need to be either re-elected or re-appointed. That principle holds true regardless of the expected length of their lifespan.

    The constitutionality issue on the health care bill came from the fact that the Constitution limits the powers of the government and within those limits it did not grant the government any rights allowing it to compel citizens to purchase anything. It is clear the Obama administration agrees with this since their argument, as filed in court, is that the insurance requirement is a "tax". If that fails, which it is likely to since taxing is very explicitly stated in the Constitution, they also plan to argue Congress has the right to impose such a requirement as part of their regulation of Commerce. That argument has a better chance at success, although if it prevails it would grant Congress the right to force citizens to do just about anything for "their own good".

    Interpretation of the Constitution was always intended to be "as is", with the "modernizing" element of constitutional amendments to correct/adapt its provisions over time. Many who do not have either the patience or inclination to follow the amendment process (it was intentionally created to be slow) prefer to get around it by using the "read between the lines" approach. This issue boils down to "if you don't like it, change it " trying to get around it by creating fantastical interpretations will end up invalidating the rule of law.

    The gun rights argument is always tinged with personal bias and manipulated statistics. The way the amendment was written is very much at fault. The explanatory statement "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,…" created the problem. Those who favor restrictive gun regulation claim it to invalidate a citizen's right to own guns. Those who favor freedom to own guns simply state the declarative statement : "…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." as the actual constitutional right. Our nation was built on the latter, quite successfully, thus my choice.

    My apologies for the long post.

    1. Eli, with respect, the article is not about the system of checks and balances in the US.

      It is about what DC insiders call the debate about how the constitution should be interpreted. Some argue that it's static and should hence be interpreted exactly as it was intended in the year it was written. Others that it is a living thing and should be interpreted to reflect our time. It's the latter that is currently being done and it invites political and ideological interpretation. And the latter is what's going on at the moment which has resulted in rulings determining that a company=person or money=speech if you like. Seriously doubt the founding fathers wanted such a ruling to take place since it takes away power from the people and give it to corporations.

      1. Catarina, the discussion on how the constitution is to be interpreted would have no context without understanding the system. Without context a discussion would have little value.

        As for the ruling on corporations to be treated as people, with regards to political contributions, your statement "Seriously doubt the founding fathers wanted such a ruling…" simply ignores history. At the time of the founding fathers, corporations were people. So the ruling would appear to be consistent with their reality. Rules and regulations, taxes and other responsibilities are not very dissimilar between individuals and corporations. Arguing that corporations may exert undue influence on elections omits the fact labor unions can also do it and wealthy individuals (the number of wealthy individuals is close to par with the number of corporations in the US) have always been able to do it. I understand the frustration of "money=speech" but censorship is not the answer, as the ruling stated.

        As you read the US Constitution it is readily apparent which parts are meant as they are written and which parts were written such that the power is delegated to individuals or institutions to make proper adjustments over time. The constitution did not provide for "evolving community standards" for its entirety, thus it is not a "living document"

          1. On the contrary, our brief discussion has brought up several pertinent points. To your question, "Do you really believe that the discussion in the highest echelons in Washington are being carried out by people who have no understanding of your constitution?" Knowing several of these "people", I would have to say yes. It is an acknowledged fact, although unspoken, that many, maybe most, elected or appointed officials have very little understanding of the constitution. This is not unique to the current Congress and administration. This decline has been coming since the early sixties. It is a combination of arrogance, delusion, and ignorance. Their view of the constitution is "as they want it to be", many admit, privately and after a few drinks, they've never fully read it. A real disgrace since it is quite brief.

            To your second question, "Do you believe that if wise people like George Washington ,Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were alive today and contemporary they would write the constitution the way they did in 1787? " If these people were alive today they would not be who they were and declaring what they would do, say, or approve of would be foolish and meaningless. Further, we can rewrite the constitution. That's the beauty of the freedom it protects. Why don't our current wise men and women take up that challenge? I believe (just my opinion with absolutely no facts) they can not find enough people to agree there is something wrong with it.

            That article, linked in your post, could have been written at any time in the past several years. These are all shameful and unethical acts, some even criminal. Had any ordinary citizen evaded their taxes as Congressman Rangel is alleged to have done, they would be facing criminal charges from the IRS. It is more evidence that the longer you stay in government the more you are apt to "help" yourself and not those you are suppose to represent.

            I feel I must explain why I wrote "people" above. I believe the longer you are connected to such power and influence you will lose your humanity. I spent many years in and around DC and concluded there is little fresh air there.

            See? Wasn't that a nice conversation?

  3. Catrina, I suspect that it is not so much about whether the Supreme Court is "impartial and objective" or "static or interpreted", It is whether or not you agree with the decision.

  4. If you remember this topic came up in 2000 as well as 2008 in response to 8 years of single party rule in the Presidency. The impact of judicial appointments may be felt for 30 plus years.

  5. The problem is that this has been going on for sometime in this country, it's not a recent phenomena by any stretch.

    This is why some of us believe that the Constitution, by definition, is a static (rather than living) document that should function as the ultimate arbiter of these difficult issues. A judge, by definition, is subservient to the Constitution and should only carry out its original intent.

    When you believe in a "living document" you invite this kind of political and ideological meddling. Some will argue that the Constitution does not reflect the times we live in…I would argue that the Constitution allows our citizens to change it, so to properly reflect what is important to them.

    With respect to your example of gun rights, I'd invite you to look at it in another way. Is it a Justice's responsibility to determine whether or not a particular law is good or bad? You argue that gun laws benefit criminals and not innocent citizens…Are you certain of that? There are citizens, for example, in the District of Columbia that would disagree with your assessment. Which side is right?

    A Justice shouldn't try and answer that question. The issue is, does the Constitution grant a citizen the right to own a firearm? The answer is yes. Whether that is a good or a bad decision for crime is only relevant to the democratic process as defined by the "law of the land."

    1. Good comment Bill. Apart from the gun rights. Let's just agree to disagree on that subject. What would America be like today if the constitution didn't grant a citizen the right to own a firearm?

  6. (3) “Is it really right that politically appointed judges with ideological agendas can overturn decisions taken by democratically elected politicians?” – The system is setup where anyone can approach the high court and ask them to review a law to determine its’ Constitutionality. The court does not sit in chambers going through stacks of laws looking for anything with which they don’t agree. Plenty of laws have been overturned because they violate the Constitution; in my opinion it is the high court that really provides the Check & Balance over the elected politicians who have ideological agendas. The Chicago handgun law? It was on the books for 18 years. Someone had to approach the high court and argue the case. The system isn’t setup for the court to “do whatever it pleases”.

    1. Vince from what I understand from D.C. insiders there is a debate there about how the constitution should be interpreted.

      Some argue that it's static and should hence be interpreted exactly as it was intended in the year it was written. Others that it is a living thing and should be interpreted to reflect our time. It's the latter that is currently being done and it invites political and ideological interpretation. So which is the best way forward?

      When it was written, for instance, the lifespan of a human being was short. If the founding fathers wrote the constitution today it's doubtful that they would appoint judges for life.

  7. (2) “It’s not law abiding US citizens guarding their homes that are the main beneficiaries of such a ruling but criminals and arms manufacturers.” – The Chicago (and D.C.) law violated our right to bear arms – Chicagoans were not allowed to legally purchase firearms – no Ifs, Ands, or Buts. The court overturned it. In no way does it benefit criminals because there are still laws which make it illegal to illegally purchase firearms, conceal carry them, even wave them around in a threatening manner. There are still plenty of laws to observe when legally owning a handgun.

  8. I have to take issue with a few comments here. I seem to be a bit wordy so I have to break it apart for the site to accept it all.

    (1) “More than 20 states are actually joining together to argue that requiring everyone to buy health care insurance violates the constitution.” – No one is required to purchase insurance, and the constitution makes no mention of insurance – so how can it be a violation?

    1. I believe it is based on the commerce clause of the constitution. Vince, you are looking at this at 30,000 feet………just like Caterina…..You need to come down to earth and look at all the details….

  9. There isn't any ONE perfect system is there? We in the USA started out with good intentions of checks and balances but now things are more political and it's all about "elections." I don't know the founding father's intentions except that ALL government be servants to the people which, we know clearly is NOT the case today.

  10. I am not an American, but it would seem that the judges should be objective. Must admit though I do not know the system.

    1. Susan, I'm sure that's what the founding fathers had in mind. But it's developed into a political system unfortunately. Am not American either but what happens in the US has a profound impact on our globalized world.

  11. I do think there should be checks and balances but I dont think that the impartial judges should have the final say. The judges have a lifetime appointment and they can change their views just like the rest of us. It is funny that the president gets all of the credit or all of the blame for the outcome.

    1. Julia there should definitely be checks and balances. But for politically appointed judges to rule that a corporation equals a person doesn't seem right to me. Doubt very much the founding fathers would have agreed.

  12. I don't know, personally I'm glad there are checks and balances built into our government system.

      1. I think "impartial and objective" is in the eye of the beholder. If you agree with the decision you will support it as impartial and objective. If you don't you will not.

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