In the wake of the announcement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ retirement from the bench, one point raised in several media outlets has been the fact that he is the only Protestant on the 9-justice court. Take for example this article from The New York Times.
Among other things, the article states the following:
His retirement, which was announced on Friday, makes possible something that would have been unimaginable a generation or two ago — a court without a single member of the nation’s majority religion.
The type of thinking that sees it necessary for the makeup of the Supreme Court to represent the country as a whole is nothing new. The same logic has been behind calls from both Democrats and Republicans for so-called “mainstream” judges, however that may be defined by partisans, as well as pushes to replace outgoing female justices with new female justices.
[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=john+paul+stevens&iid=6650878″ src=”c/3/e/c/US_Supreme_Court_46a6.jpg?adImageId=12452827&imageId=6650878″ width=”234″ height=”309″ /]Lost in this desire, however, is a correct perspective on the proper role of the courts. The courts weren’t designed to be representative of the people; that’s why we have the aptly named House of Representatives — where members are actually voted on by the people. The Supreme Court was one way the framers of the U.S. Constitution found to counter the majoritarian elements of our government.
This anti-majoritarian streak is important because it is the courts which interpret the Constitution and laws, which are meant to protect us from the tyranny of the majority (read: pure democracy). Despite popular mythology brought about by decades of misguided historical revisionism, our country was not founded as a democracy. It was supposed to be a constitutional republic where government was limited largely to protecting the rights of individuals.
The framers understood that pure democracy can often lead to abridgement of an individual’s rights for the sake of pleasing the desires of the majority. It has been humorously noted that democracy is like two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. The result, naturally, is not pretty.
As such, the Supreme Court is not to represent the people but only to interpret the laws. In its proper role of upholding the Constitution, the court can at times be a check on the often misguided majoritarian instincts of the legislature.
The media hype over a court that represents the majority (or sometimes worded “diversity”) of Americans lacks any substantive meaning beyond the fluffy, feel-good language that is commonly found in political rhetoric. Legally speaking, the only thing the courts should represent is fidelity to the Constitution.