Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has accepted an invitation to address incoming members of the House of Representatives on his views on the Constitution. The request came from Rep. Michele Bachman (R-MN), a conservative and founding member of the Tea Party Caucus in the House. It is doubtful that Democrats will participate in the session, knowing the ideological alliance between the conservative wing of the Republican Party and right-leaning Justices on the high Court. The conservative Scalia is set to speak to GOP House freshman at the same time the new Republican majority is calling for the repeal of health care reform and encouraging litigation in the federal courts to overturn the Obama administration initiative.
The politicization of the Supreme Court is nothing new, though purists insist there was a period of apolitical behavior that the record and history of the Court does not support. What has changed is the overt nature of the contact between sitting Justices and members of Congress. Supporters of Justice Scalia will point to President Obama’s criticism of the Court’s ruling on a critical campaign finance case during his State of the Union address, with Justices in attendance, including Chief Justice John Roberts. The President and the Chief Justice have had a strained relationship dating back to Robert’s bungling of the presidential oath of office during Obama’s inauguration. The difference is that the President was reacting to a decision of the Court in an address to the nation, and not violating protocol in what has historically been a speech in which the sitting President lays out his policy priorities.
Republicans in the House have declared that all legislation must pass constitutional muster and to prove that they are loyal Americans, they have set a session to read the Constitution in the House chamber. Theatrics aside, a better understanding of the Constitution and its tortured history would serve all Americans well, and mostly lawmakers who are making decisions based upon their interpretation of the country’s guiding legal document. If the intent is to educate House members on the Constitution and its history then the leadership of both parties should have extended an invitation to two Justices with opposing philosophical views, say Scalia and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. I would still oppose such a meeting but at least it would have the appearance of civic learning and not whiff of partisanship.
On a Supreme Court where there is one African-American who is diametrically opposed to the perspective of most Blacks and where Black women have yet to occupy a seat we must pay special attention to the business of the nation’s highest court. In many ways, the ideological battle that is brewing today on Capitol Hill is rooted in the Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution – numbers 13, 14, and 15. The very core of the amendments speaks to issues of identity, citizenship and equal access under the law. Rhetoric from conservatives calling for “taking back America” or reducing the power of the federal government represent sentimental remembrances of a period in this country when Blacks, women, and other racial and ethnic minorities were the subjects of overt or de jure segregation. The Tea Party’s embrace of “states rights” makes the movement the ideological cousin of the white Citizens Councils of the Jim Crow era. The reminiscing of the era of lawful discrimination is a troubling perspective at a time when our nation is entering a prolonged period of great demographic change. Anyone who truly supports the tenets of the Declaration of Independence should vigorously oppose efforts to revive a Constitution that supported second-class citizenship.
Justice Scalia’s house call sets a bad precedent and indicates that the 112th Congress will be a two-year period of combativeness and partisanship aimed solely at the 2012 presidential election. The thinning line between the legislature and the judiciary undermines the democratic ideals embedded in the nation’s founding documents and reduces the nation’s standing as a democracy. Little good will come from this co-mingling of constitutional roles and responsibilities in an era when hyper-partisanship endangers our future. The conservatives on the Roberts Court are on the verge of writing another sordid chapter in our nation’s history.
Walter Fields is the Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.