THE PLANK MAY 5, 2008
Anna Quindlen makes the highly dubious claim that the Supreme Court is the most powerful branch of the federal government:
Congress chips away at legislation, then sends some lowest-common-denominator version to the White House, to be signed or vetoed or later redesigned by the next president to take up temporary residence in Washington. But the work of the high court has had vast systemic influence over the lives of all Americans, an effect that lasts through generations. In the tripartite tussle, it's no contest: SCOTUS rules.The display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings. The scope of eminent domain. The reading of rights to defendants. The ability of taxpayers to litigate against faith-based government-funded programs. School prayer. Medical marijuana. Campaign ads. And that's before you get to desegregation, abortion, affirmative action and capital punishment. If you try to register to vote in Indiana and are turned away because you don't have a government-issued photo ID, that's because the Supremes just ruled, 6-3, that that's OK.So why are many Americans insensible to a body that has so much power over their lives?
I think one need look no further for the answer than the examples of recent major cases Quindlen cites. There are on the order of 4.5 million voting-age citizens in Indiana; most estimates place the number of voters who lack identification required to vote as being in the tens of thousands, maybe one to two percent of the voting-age population. The same goes for most of the other cases on her list: At most a couple thousand partial-birth abortions were performed every year before the Court upheld Congress's ban on the practice. Almost nobody feels at risk of losing their home to eminent-domain abuse in the wake of Kelo, or loses much sleep over whether child rapists should be executed or merely imprisoned for life. The Supreme Court of 40 years ago may have been tackling quite a few cases that directly impacted larger segments of the public, but for the most part that's less true of today's Court.
This is not to say that these aren't important questions--they certainly are on an intellectual level, and more directly for small groups of people who suffer very real injustices. I would be thrilled (though also surprised) if the campaign focused more heavily on them: In a liberal state, public debate shouldn't exclusively cover issues that actually affect the average citizen's daily life. But at a time when it's hard enough to get campaign coverage to hone in on the substance of debates over things like foreign policy, taxation, energy, education, and health care--which really do make a huge difference in the everyday lives of large numbers of Americans, as Jon Cohn poignantly reminds us below--it just seems a little ambitious to lament the absence of a nuanced public discussion over the meaning of the Establishment Clause. As the saying goes, if everything is equally important to you, then nothing is important.