It could all be in the hands of just one justice. After a 14-month fight in Congress and an unprecedented challenge by states to the power of the federal government, the fate of health care in this country is likely to be decided by a 5-4 vote.
The same may be true when the court rules on Arizona’s immigration law and a sweeping free speech case.
As speculation and anxiety grow over these cases, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently alluded in a speech to “sharp disagreement” in the Supreme Court’s outstanding opinions, while saying that “those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.”
It’s not terribly productive to try to guess how the court will rule in these cases — we’ll find out soon enough. It’s far more important to ask whether “those who know” are too few and whether “those who don’t know” should demand to reform the court.
The power of the Supreme Court will always be controversial because of the fact that the justices are the final word in legal disputes. Justice Robert Jackson wrote in 1953, “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” An individual’s view of the court can depend on whose ox is being gored by its decisions; a “judicial activist” is often just a jurist who doesn’t do what you want. Any Supreme Court of any size will always render unpopular decisions. It is supposed to. Federal judges are given life tenure to insulate them from public opinion, so they can protect minority interests and basic liberties.
But how many people should it take to come up with the final word on such questions? Our highest court is so small that the views of individual justices have a distorting and idiosyncratic effect on our laws. The deep respect for the Supreme Court as an institution often blinds us to its flaws, the greatest of which is that it is demonstrably too small. Nine members is one of the worst numbers you could pick — and it’s certainly not what the founders chose. The Constitution does not specify the number of justices, and the court’s size has fluctuated through the years. It’s time for it to change again.
A national poll this month showed that the public overwhelmingly opposes how the court functions. Only 44 percent of citizens approved of how the court is doing its job, and 60 percent thought that appointing Supreme Court justices for life is a “bad thing” because it “gives them too much power.”
Many people started looking critically at the court’s structure after the Bush v. Gore decision in 2000 — and the power that case gave to just five unelected individuals. One of the most disturbing aspects of the case was not simply that some justices appeared to depart from prior legal views but that the court insisted that its opinion could not be used as precedent and was “limited to the present circumstances.” Five justices did not want their reasoning used for anything other than selecting the next president of the United States.
The health-care decision comes 75 years after the famous “court packing” effort of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As it is today, the country in 1937 was in the midst of an economic crisis, and Roosevelt was saddled with four conservative justices — known as the “Four Horsemen” — who opposed his New Deal. Three justices, called the “Three Musketeers,” were predictably liberal but could not carry the day against the Four Horsemen and Associate Justice Owen Roberts, who was often a swing vote.