Jolts of justice: A balancing act
Audi Hecht is Civic Spirit’s Director of Education and Innovation.
The recent bevy of Supreme Court decisions has sent shockwaves across the fruited plain, eliciting an assortment of reactions from celebration to public outcry, including questioning the legitimacy of the High Court. These decisions will reverberate not just in courtrooms where the law is interpreted, but in classrooms where the next generation is being taught to lead our democracy.
The Court addressed a wide range of topics that require skillful balancing of interests and value considerations. Among them, to what extent does liberty of conscience secured under the First Amendment hold weight when one’s conscience precludes one from providing a service for a protected group under the Fourteenth Amendment. In the case of Creative LLC vs. Elenis, a web designer refused her graphic design services to same-sex couples raising the question; can the government compel her to work against her will?
Does Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allow higher education institutions to consider race as a factor in admissions while redressing systemic inequality based on race, as in Students For Fair Admissions vs. Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College and the University of North Carolina?
How do the rights of a postal worker to not work on his Christain Sabbath measure up against placing an undue burden on co-workers to cover his shifts in Groff vs. DeJoy? And in terms of power and authority, how much independence and immunity from state court influence does a state legislature have in establishing rules regarding federal elections, as raised in Moore vs. Harper?
This balancing exercise of determining which competing values should triumph in a particular case is influenced by various factors, notably one’s philosophical approach to interpreting the law and perspectives on a host of issues. According to Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 78, the Courts are tasked with absorbing some of the charged aspects of societal discord and dissensus.
It is far more rational to suppose that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority. The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judge, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. If there should happen to be an irreconcilable variance between the two, that which has the superior obligation and validity ought, of course, to be preferred; or, in other words, the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute, the intention of the people to the intention of their agents.
Hamilton regards the courts as the guardian of the Constitution. In striking a balance between the will of the people as expressed through laws passed by the legislature and the will of the people as manifest through the Constitution, as interpreted by judges, he prioritizes the latter. In this manner, the courts serve as a check on the legislative branch. As someone schooled in the Federalist philosophy, he affords greater credence to the judges, as experts trained in the legal field to assess the merits and drawbacks of the law, than the legislature when a conflict emerged.
What do Americans think about how our courts are doing? A Pew Study on American views on the Supreme Court in September 2022 revealed that 51 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of Republicans believed that the Supreme Court is doing a poor job at keeping individual political views out of their decisions.
James Madison, in Federalist 51, offers insight into this. “But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself."
I work for Civic Spirit, a nonpartisan organization that provides training and resources in civic education to faith based schools across the country. Our work encompasses cultivating the ability to regard our nation’s storied past by providing educators and students with opportunities to learn and work through the balancing act of weighing and analyzing competing values as our judges do. We help strengthen their capacity to interpret foundational and contemporary ideas, assess them, and chart a path forward while paying respect to all parties, aiming to strike the delicate balance of justice and liberty. This provides hope and a plan for how our society can navigate the different ways we look at the world and the variegated approach for creating a more perfect society.