It is a great semester to be teaching the Supreme Court, and the ongoing showdown over President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland is the latest in a real-time lesson plan that any professor would appreciate.
I’m in my fourth year of doing so at Keuka College, where I offer an upper-level Constitutional Law class every spring, and my sixth year overall after first facing a classroom of 100 students at Syracuse University as an inexperienced graduate student. In that time, any expertise that I have amassed on the subject matter has always been quickly outpaced by new questions and puzzles that arise from the complex role that our nation’s highest court plays in our greater political system.
The short of it, I tell my students, is that the Supreme Court is immensely complicated because it simultaneously operates in two different universes. On one hand, it is a legal body that we expect to neutrally interpret the law and the Constitution, arbitrating disputes in a vacuum void of bias or external influence. We need it to be because it was designed by the Framers to stand apart from the political process and remain insulated from partisanship or dramatic swings in popular opinion. On the other hand, it is inherently political in its reliance on the executive and legislative branches for its members and the support of the public for its ongoing institutional legitimacy.
The current situation highlights how those factors can constrain its legal role and influence its daily institutional duties hearing some of our country’s most pressing cases. Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February left the Court with only eight members and at risk of a tie on some of the most controversial issues pending on its docket. However, Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have maintained that Scalia’s replacement must wait for a new president in January. Scholars have spent the last month debating the constitutional and practical implications of such a threat but, whether justified or not, it is clearly a political one.
President Obama’s introduction of Judge Garland, who is currently serving on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, came with a reassuring image of the Supreme Court as an institution grounded in the noble and apolitical pursuit of justice with important business to conduct. However, it also included a firm directive to the Senate to honor the role of the Court and consider his appointment. His speech was both a result and acknowledgement of the political forces that inevitably exert an influence on the Supreme Court’s activities and members.
The dual and often conflicting nature of the Supreme Court is what makes it so interesting to study, especially now when my students and I have the opportunity to witness the tug-of-war that has characterized and shaped the Court for much of its history. As I always tell my students, I will end this semester having posed more questions than answers. Right now, the big one is: what will happen next? I certainly don’t know – we’ll either have an appointment or we won’t, and if not, the issue will take center stage in November and carry into 2017.
What I can tell you is that a classroom of 28 students in Keuka Park will come away with more curiosity about the Supreme Court and its laws and politics. And after the process is completed, so will the entire country.