Who has ultimate authority: the president or the courts?

A simple question, being asked by many Americans as the courts deliberate over the president’s travel ban, that alarms us to the core. This is basic three-branches-of-government data. We should all have learned this in grade school. But since civics education has been eliminated in our schools, most Americans seem to lack the most basic understanding of how our government works.

And that’s so dangerous. It allows people to believe the president when he says the courts are traitorous and should just do as he says “because it’s right”.

We’re rerunning our post on this issue in hopes of answering that simple and fatal question for America. We originally ran it nearly a decade ago, in the context of state supreme courts ruling on gay marriage. Every time you read “the legislature” below, sub in “the executive”, that is, the president, and it addresses the issue with Trump today. Sub in “tyranny of the president” for “tyranny of the majority”, and you are also on track.


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 judicial branch exists to review laws, acts, and executive orders to ensure that they are constitutional. If those laws, acts, and executive orders are not constitutional the courts must overturn them. This allows the judiciary to preserve our democracy in a crucial way—stopping tyranny of the majority.

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, through their members of Congress, 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.

We 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.

4 thoughts on “Who has ultimate authority: the president or the courts?

  1. In a de facto sense, the courts have the final say as Americans have accepted their diktats for the past 50 years. In a de jure sense, Trump, as president, is correct and has the say as regards his executive order in question.


    1. Hello Larry; it’s actually the exact opposite. The courts have the final say because that is what is written in our Constitution, not because that’s the informal practice that has developed because there is no formal law. De facto operations have never been formally approved. De jure have, and that’s what our Constitution is—de jure institution of the judiciary as the final arbiter and interpreter of what is legal practice in the United States.

      And of course the Supreme Court and other federal courts have been in operation for far more than 50 years, thus establishing centuries of judicial precedent by which to judge the president’s executive order. If the court finds that order to be unconstitutional, it has every de jure right and obligation to overturn it. What we don’t want to do is begin a de facto practice of allowing unconstitutional orders or laws to stand because they appeal to some part of the population, or because we like the president who gave an order.


  2. No, the judiciary is an oligarchy claiming to have supreme authority over both Congress & President. Judiciary does not prevent the the tyranny of the majority, but it established the tyranny of the judiciary, ultimately 5 SCOTUS justices have final authority, not a massive minority of the population. The USA is not & never has been any democracy, except of a few town meetings in New England & occasional referendums. The Oligarchy is not establishing rights for minorities, but rights of the Oligarchy to do whatever it pleases.


    1. Hello Gum; your language is unclear. You say that tyranny of the majority is not avoided, yet also that “a massive minority” goes unheard. And then by “minority” do you mean racial or other demographic minority, rather than a segment of the general population? If the Judiciary were an oligarchy, there would be no Legislative or Executive branches. It is very frustrating when one branch of the government does not do its job, and it’s alarming when any branch violates the Constitution, but the latter has to be the basis for any rejection of a ruling or law. The only time we as Americans can complain about a court ruling or a new law from the judiciary is it it violates our Constitutional promise of liberty and justice, and equality of opportunity, for all. If one branch upholds the Constitution against the other two, or the majority of our population, it is not an oligarchy but the opposite: it is keeping the banner of equal rights aloft.


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