Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Our Constitutional Republic

America was founded on the idea that democracy is not an acceptable form of government. Madison, Hamilton, and the rest of the framers of the Constitution understood the reality that, given a choice, people will often act in their own interests rather than the greater good.

It is no coincidence, then, that practically every aspect of our government is designed to preclude abuses at the hands of a like-minded majority. The defining characteristic of that structure, of course, is that we don’t enact or enforce legislation ourselves—we elect people to do it for us. We have even less power to choose the president and vice president—all our votes do is decide who gets to do the electing.

That might’ve been enough for some fledgling republics, but not America. The founders felt the need for one more safeguard—a branch of government composed of our wisest, most objective citizens, empowered to review and overturn legislation without fear of being removed from office by an unhappy electorate.

To put it another way, the judicial branch is charged with the one task that is vital to a functioning society, and impossible in a pure democracy—doing things that are unpopular. Because what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.

But the obvious downside to judicial review is that, sometimes, courts screw up. And why wouldn’t they? Judges are expected to be more knowledgeable and impartial than the average voter, but no one expects them to be infallible. Still, it’s rare for a ruling—even an extremely controversial one—to be blatantly, indisputably wrong. More often, a ruling is counter to a person’s existing worldview, or their understanding of the legal questions involved, or both.

When that happens, the immediate temptation is to accuse the judges of getting caught up in politics and emotion and activism—things that are supposed to be beneath them. The next step is to do something about it. Perhaps the ruling can be appealed, or undone by constitutional amendment. If a similar case can be brought before another judge, maybe a different conclusion would be reached.

And eventually, after all the procedural options have been exhausted, people will just have to accept that, no matter how upset they are, and how much they complain, the courts have made a decision and that’s how things are going to be.

When conservatives start gushing over the Constitution, and our founding principles, and how those principles need to be protected at all costs, this is what they’re talking about. The people have a say in government, but that doesn't mean they can use it to do whatever they want. It all comes down to checks and balances, and just as there are mechanisms in place to keep each branch of government from abusing its power, the judiciary serves as a check on the voting power of the majority. You don’t have to be happy about everything the courts do, but you have to respect the system, because you'll need those same courts to be there when your rights are on the line.

Alright, that was my opening—merely the foundation for the actual content that follows. Here is that content:

All this "how dare they undermine the will of the people!" stuff is absolute bullshit, and conservatives should know better.[1]

1. Attention Google-searchers: This article is about the recent California federal court decision in the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger, in which Judge Vaughn Walker—finding the state's voter-enacted ban on gay marriage to be a violation of both Due Process and Equal Protection—declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional.

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