THERE ARE two things to be said about putative presidential candidate Pat Robertson's statement that "a Supreme Court ruling is not the law of the United States." One is that it is wrong. Two, more important, it is politically mischievous. It may be interesting to hear a public figure resurrect an old argument that almost everyone thought was dead and buried. It is more disturbing to see a politician suggest to voters that they don't have to obey court decisions they don't like.
On the opposite page you can see the legal argument made in Mr. Robertson's behalf. "Neither Congress nor the president," writes the dean of the new CBN University Law School, "having not been a party to the case, has a duty to obey a judicial ruling that is contrary to the Constitution." But, you may ask, contrary to the Constitution according to whom? In a republic where governmental decisions are ultimately enforceable in courts, the answer must be that the Supreme Court determines finally what the Constitution says. Congress may pass a law that it believes to be constitutional; the president may sign it believing it to be constitutional; but if the Supreme Court refuses to enforce it on the grounds that it is not constitutional, that's the law of the land. That is exactly what happened in Marbury v. Madison, decided 183 years ago.
For a president or a politician at this point to refuse to obey a law will either be futile or defiant or, like George Wallace's standing in the schoolhouse door, both. There is room here for a politician to say, as Mr. Robertson and many others do about the abortion case of Roe v. Wade, that a Supreme Court decision is wrong, and should be overturned by new justices or a constitutional amendment; there is room for a private citizen to engage in civil disobedience in order to get the law changed. But public officials and politicians who may seek the highest office do have a duty to obey Supreme Court rulings, even those they disagree with.
Which leads us to the political mischief. Mr. Robertson likes to say he trusts the people and their elective representatives and distrusts power in the hands of unelected officials on the Supreme Court or the Federal Reserve. By suggesting that citizens and officials don't have to obey court decisions, he tries to corral voters with any grievance against these institutions by suggesting that they are somehow illegitimate and can somehow be done away with. That's irresponsible. The hard part of governing in a representative democracy is to reconcile the views of an often inexpert public with those of often unpopular experts, to give due regard to public opinion and public institutions. There is no simple formula that guarantees good results. Certainly not the formula -- always trust the people, never trust the unelected officials -- that Mr. Robertson seems to be advancing.