Friday, March 30, 2012

5-4 Supreme Court decisions

When the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 decided the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, Chief Justice Earl Warren realized that a closely contested, divided decision would leave the country without the conclusive resolution it needed to move forward on matters involving race.

Warren worked with the other justices on the court until he was able to structure a 9-0 decision. From that ruling on, there could be no doubt that racial equality was the law of the land in America.

On Jan. 22, 1973, with a 7-to-2 majority, the Supreme Court deemed abortion to be a fundamental constitutional right in the case of Roe v. Wade.

In United States v. Nixon in 1974, the court issued a landmark ruling limiting the power of the presidency. Chief Justice Warren Burger, a conservative, wrote the unanimous decision for colleagues that included three liberals.

What we now have, sadly, is something very different. The high court, which the constitutional framers placed above politics through lifetime appointments, looks like it has become just one more piece of a broken political system. Unlike those of earlier courts, far-reaching decisions have hinged on a single vote.

On Dec. 12, 2000, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to stop the Florida recount of presidential votes, thus awarding the election to George W. Bush over Al Gore.

In a more recent ruling called Citizens United, the court ruled 5-4 that the First Amendment protects both corporations and individuals with equal vigor.

This week, the court heard oral arguments concerning provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Recent history indicates the court is headed for the same single-vote majority ruling.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his confirmation hearings, said he hoped to be a chief justice who crafted decisions that would bring the justices together on important rulings. Does anyone believe that the Supreme Court is not going to decide the fate of the Affordable Care Act by a vote of 5-4? Is there any chance that Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia will sign on to a decision with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg?

For much of our history, the Supreme Court has been a nearly sacrosanct institution, the ultimate authority on what the law means in a nation defined by its respect for the rule of law. What we have now is a radical court operating on the premise that if one side can get five votes, it does not matter what the other side believes. The robust rule of law is in danger of being replaced by ill-defined winner-take-all votes of a severely divided court.

By giving up its role as the purveyor of justice for a role as arbiter of ideology, the Supreme Court is diluting the respect and honor it once had, and making losers of every citizen.

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