Court decisions are not “democracy”?

Posted on November 13, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

We were listening to the news and heard someone being interviewed say that an issue in their state had been decided by the state Supreme Court, and therefore the issue “was solved by the courts, not by democracy”.

This idea that the judiciary, one of the three branches of our government as described by our Constitution, is somehow not part of our democratic system is a baffling one. We are forced to repost our original rebuttal of this idea, from 2008, here in the continuing effort to fight this misconception:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule–the basis of democracy–ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature–Congress–cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose. See Dispatches from the Culture Wars for an excellent post demonstrating this.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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One Response to “Court decisions are not “democracy”?”

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I like this very much, except for the comment that the judges are appointed. In our state (Pennsylvania), common pleas, superior and supreme court judges are elected. Some say that this makes judges prone to politics. However, where judges are appointed, politics are also involved–someone appoints them. At the national level, the President appoints judges. Nevertheless, once a judge is seated, US Supreme Court judges are appointed for life and do not have to appeal to a constituency in order to be re-elected. “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices are elected to ten year terms. Supreme Court judicial candidates may run on party tickets. After the ten-year term expires, a statewide YES/NO vote for retention is conducted. If the judge is retained, he/she serves another ten-year term. If the judge is not retained, the Governor—subject to the approval of the State Senate—appoints a temporary replacement until a special election can be held.”

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