The Supremes, Out of Tune

The one ruling body expected to rise above political interest has now shown that it, too, may be divided by the issues around the presidential vote count in Florida.

While the US Supreme Court may yet rule with supreme wisdom on Case No. 00-949 (Bush v. Gore), its political fault-lines were revealed in its 5 to 4 decision just to take case.

Even before reading the briefs or hearing the arguments, the court's two factions issued snarling initial opinions, showing they were eager to come down from the Mt. Olympus of impartial truth and blind justice to roll in the swamp of a highly political and historic case.

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Just a week before, the US court was able to paper over its divisions in an unsigned, unanimous decision that vacated the first Florida Supreme Court decision. But then more legal issues opened the conservative-liberal divisions within both high courts, and all within a day of each other.

More than just a civics lesson, this politicization of the court raises a question about the virtues expected in Supreme Court justices. They are asked to make powerful, final decisions based on the highest qualities of thought, especially when legislators and presidents fail at that.

The Founding Fathers were divided on granting such immense power within the federal government. George Washington, in presiding over the Constitutional Convention, warned that most men operate out of self-interest. "The few, therefore, who act upon Principles of Disinterestedness are, comparatively speaking, no more than a drop in the ocean." Alexander Hamilton claimed the "learned profession" (lawyers) could be a selfless and natural elite ruling over people with lesser education.

Over two centuries, the Supreme Court has generally maintained a sacred aura of being selfless and sinless. Americans still hope it can define right conduct, and rely on either human law (the Constitution) or, in some instances, "natural" or divine law.

Placing great faith in the impartiality of judges assumes an innocence of human thought that, under ideal circumstances, allows judges to make sensible decisions within society's consensus about basic principles. They are expected to be giant Gullivers of inspired thinking who nonetheless are tied down by the Lilliputians of popular will and agreed tradition.

"If national pride is ever justifiable or excusable, it is when it springs, not from power or riches, grandeur or glory, but from conviction of national innocence, information, and benevolence," stated another Founding Father, John Adams.

The virtues of the meritocracy that is the Supreme Court relies on a continuing American sentiment that the justices can rise above their political whims or set ideologies.

That faith in basic goodness will be on review in the Bush v. Gore case.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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