Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Majesty of the Law

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In light of this week's major societal meltdowns, due completely to any number of Supreme Court decisions in which one segment or the other of the populace disagreed, I have revisited my all time favorite law book written by a Supreme Court Justice. It is called The Majesty of the Law, by Sandra Day O'Connor. Written upon her retirement from the Bench, she reviews her life's work and provides a textbook of sorts for those in need of a really good civics lesson about our judicial system.

Justice O'Connor begins her foray into explaining how our system of laws works by giving everyone a history lesson. If a person doesn't understand how something of such import as the US Constitution came about, then the document itself has no meaning. There is no reason to defend and protect it. Only after the consideration of the purposes inherent in the Constitution become apparent do we get the full measure of its uniqueness.

She details the reasons and meanings behind the Bill of Rights and the ensuing Constitutional amendments. What they mean for the average citizen and how the Supreme Court is charged with upholding the independence and individuality of each and every citizen while ensuring a viable and productive government. She discusses the three branches of government and why above all else, the justices of the Supreme Court are beholden to no man or political theory except that found in the lines of the US Constitution. She discusses why an independent judiciary is the backbone of this nation.

She dedicates another part to the women in this country that fought for and attained the right for women to vote. We, women of the United States, owe more than a simple debt of gratitude to these early pioneers of women's suffrage. For without their push for voting equality, women would never have moved beyond the bounds of chattel, and societal supplicant. Only when our voices held sway over political outcomes, and hence became important to those who roam in the political velt, would our requirements of equality and fairness towards those of us of the "fairer sex" become something of national concern.

Lastly she outlines her views of law in the 21st century. Where we have been and her hopes for how the future will pan out. She discusses the universality of law and the opening up of borders. She talks about the future of newly free nations and the need to find a reasonable way to resolve disputes between countries. So much more important today than even the day this book was published. With the breaking down of economic borders and the complete internationalization  and interdependence of the world, there must be some valued and equally appropriate method to resolve economically catastrophic disputes.

But without a doubt, the common thread throughout this book is her absolute love of the US Constitution. Her adherence to its values, beliefs and her dedication to the continuing legacy left to us by our founding fathers. She quotes Chief Justice John Marshall:

"The Judicial Department comes home in its effects to every man's fireside: It passes on his property, his reputation, his life, his all. Is it not, to the last degree important, that [the judge] should be rendered perfectly and completely independent with nothing to influence or control him but God and his conscience?"

Justice O'Connor then adds on her own view:

"I am sure that we do not always succeed in striking precisely the right balance between law and freedom. But we must never stop trying.Both north and south of our common border, we believe in law. At the same time, we believe in freedom. Each of these things, if unchecked, can destroy the other. It is, in the last analysis, the judicial branch that must preserve both law and freedom, keep operating effectively for the common good, and assure justice."

Building upon this idea she adds:

E. B. White said, "Democracy is based on the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time." In the narrow view, the Supreme Court is based on the suspicion that five Justices are similarly correct. In the broader view, I think that the Justices contribute to the wider democracy. We struggle with national issues and attempt to define from a national perspective what it is that the federal laws and the Constitution say. If you don't agree with all of the Court's holdings, you are certainly not alone. But you may be confident that we never stop trying in our writings on every case on our agenda to contribute appropriately to the fragile balances of our national democracy.

You may not agree with her on her court-decisions. You may not agree with the Supreme Court this week at all. But this book outlines in nice detail the "legal whys and wherefores" that our sitting Justices review. This book attempts to give us insight into that delicate balancing act they, the Justices of the Supreme Court, deal with as they fight to preserve the ideals of the nation called the United States of America.

It is important to remember that the US Constitution is not a document meant to protect the majority. The majority, through referendum and law, will take very good care of itself. No the US Constitution is a document meant for the Court to protect the minority among us. To give the minority view a stake at the table and a right to be heard. It is the job of the Supreme Court to make sure that the minority view is given respect and understanding. And yes sometimes these rulings have been a painful calling for the country. But simply because the majority of the nation does not agree with the Court, does not mean the Court was wrong. For that reason and that reason alone, the US Supreme Court is the very necessary caretaker, the overseer and the watchman on the wall of our freedom.


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