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07/03/2018

A Supreme Court of One

Like Neil Skjoldal in yesterday’s blog entry, I, too, am a Supreme Court watcher and enjoy reading their decisions as some might enjoy watching a good sports match or listening to a beautiful symphony. Nerd that I am, I find a well-articulated argument a beautiful thing to behold, even when it runs counter to my bioethics, as it can be a learning experience to help me sharpen my counter argument. My counter argument becomes moot if five or more Justices concur with that original argument, as it is rare, though not impossible, for the Court to completely reverse itself.

Last week, the legal landscape suffered the equivalent of a San Andreas-like major tremor along its political fault-line with the announced retirement of Associate Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justice Kennedy has generally been considered the political center of the Court, the all-important tiebreaker, if you will, on controversial bioethical issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the death penalty. Presently, we give 9 Justices the authority to be the final interpreters of our laws, including those that determine our collective bioethics. Amazingly, we will accept a majority rule 5-4 split decision as being just as acceptable as a 9-0 unanimous decision when validating or invalidating our laws. Being the tiebreaker on previous controversial issues effectively made Justice Kennedy what I call “a Supreme Court of One”. And that is exactly how both political parties are treating the selection of Justice Kennedy’s replacement.

And they should.

In a past blog entry, I tried to make the case that it vitally matters who is interpreting our Constitution, as those individuals are grounding our secular bioethics. Allowing one tie-breaker to decide these important issues is too much power and responsibility in one individual but that has been the reality in our presently divided Court.

My favorite legal philosopher is the late Yale Law School professor Arthur Leff. He gave a lecture at the Duke University Law School in the late 1970s called “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law”. He made the case that if our source of right and wrong is anything other than a transcendental (unnatural) source, then the resulting ethics/law is always open to challenge. The U.S. Constitution is an example of a natural source of law, perhaps the best that mankind can create for itself, but, since it was created by us, it is therefore always open to challenge by us. Given its internal checks and balances, as long as “We the People” continue to agree to be governed by the Constitution (and this is by no means a permanent agreement), rulings by the Supreme Court essentially function as our collective approval of laws that determine our national bioethics.

I have shared the following quote from Leff’s lecture before but it again seems appropriate:

As long as the Constitution is accepted, or at least not overthrown, it successfully functions as a God would in a valid ethical system: its restrictions and accommodations govern. They could be other than they are, but they are what they are, and that is that. There will be, as with all divine pronouncements, a continuous controversy over what God says, but whatever the practical importance of the power to determine those questions, they are theoretically unthreatening. It is only when the Constitution ceases to be seen as fulfilling God’s normative role, ceases, that is, to be outside the normative system it totally constitutes, or when, as is impossible with a real God, it is seen to have “gaps,” that a crisis comes to exist. What “wins” when the Constitution will not say, or says two things at the same time?

Presently, the Supreme Court interprets those gaps and decides what wins and what loses in our national bioethics debates. Given our present evenly split Court, picking the next Supreme Court of One can literally make all the bioethical difference in the world.

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