Just about three Mondays a month, the nine scholars, social arbiters and umpires otherwise known as the Justices of the Supreme Court release their list of winners and losers and then announce the lineup of future players.
And, just about three Mondays a month, it occurs to me that the Supreme Court is in many ways the most powerful branch of government: the last court of appeals, and the one who know the least about.
Over the course of American history, in decisions from Dred Scott to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (and now Bakke v. the University of California ), their decisions have precipitated a civil war, decided the course of civil rights and altered our society as much as has any President - but with far less public exposure.
If the sort of far-reaching social issues raised in court cases were to be decided in one of the other top levels of government - Congress or the White House - there would be a full, elaborate public investigation of the process of decision-making and the lives of the decision-makers.
There would be one reporter sifting through the gossip, if not the garbage, of the major senators involved, and another delving into the background of the conference committee members, and a third describing in detail which White House aid speculated what to whom at which local party.
But we know less about the working of the Supreme Court and still less about the lives of the Justices than about the most lowly member of Congress. After they are confirmed, these judges virtually drop out of the public eye. No longer plain people, they become Robed Judges who are rarely even defrocked in photographs.
We hear about them again only when they are retiring (as in the case of an Arthur Goldberg) or when they are ill (Justice William Brennan). The only to hold a televised press conference in my memory was William O.Douglas, when he was ill. While each member is free to talk to reporters at will, only a select few ever talk to a select few at select moments.
The Jutices are known only by their decisions and dissents, which they issue and then never again discuss in public. They are virtually absent from the spotlight.
Most of us hld the Supreme Court in supreme respect and want to believe that the decisions they make are removed from their personalities and prejudices. We want to believe as earnestly as the Court's public information officer, Barrett McGurn, does that "the Justices in a very judicial manner sit in thoughtful judgment."
It is a symbol of the Court's power that we invest faith in it, and see it as above hoi polloi, and attribute to it qualities that are "majestic."
The mystique surrounding the Court suggests that, once seated, these people are virtually uninfluenced by their histories; unaffected by current events; untouched by the newspapers they read, the conversations they have, the attitudes of their families and communities. They are thought of more as biblical scholars than lawmakers, interpreting the Constitution rather than re-writing it.
I suspect that we enshroud the Court with these myths and majesty in order to accept more easily its decisions. yet the same myths and ignorance can cloud our criticism and ultimately undermine our respect for the Court.
Raoul Berger in his new book, "Government by Judiciary," convincingly shows how the Court "interpreted" the 14th Amendment in ways that totally reversed the intention of the people who passed it. He writes that "such conduct impels one to conclude that the Justices have become a law unto themselves." In his summary, the retired Harvard Law School professor says, "a prime task of scholarship therefore is to heighten public awareness that the Court has been overleaping its boundaries."
At the moment, of course, the Court is putting forth its conservative opinions under the name of self-restraint. They think of themselves as the environmentalists of the legal world - small is better, less is more. But isn't just the scholars who should heighten public awareness. It's the business of the media and of the public as well.
While I am hardly in favor of studying the garbage of Justice Powell, or planting a bug under the conference seats at the closed Friday meetings, I do think that a bit of demythologizing and increased public attention is in order. We don't need awe bred in ignorance; rather, we need the public respect and criticism that comes only with understanding.