As the president of the United States stands with his hand on a Bible and takes an oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” he might not be thinking about protecting it from an unassuming source: the U.S. Supreme Court.
At the 117th Sibley Lecture on April 12 hosted by the University of Georgia Law School, University of Chicago Professor David Strauss spoke about whether or not Supreme Court decisions are actually the law of the land.
History of defying of Supreme Court rulings
Strauss believes people can have one of three reactions to the statement that the Supreme Court is the law of the land: agree, disagree in favor of the Constitution as the leading governing document of the U.S. or argue that the Constitution is only what the judges say it is. While these views are not exactly correct, they still have “an element of truth to them,” Strauss said.
Citing examples as far back as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Strauss said there have always been disagreements between the executive and legislative branches on the court's authority.
These presidents served at a time when Supreme Court justices were chosen by the opposing political party that was elected by a different generation of Americans.
Strauss mentioned an example with Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857 when the Supreme Court issued a statement that all African Americans, whether enslaved or free, were not U.S. citizens. Lincoln opposed this ruling and defied the justices’ decision by allowing the State Department to issue passports to free black people so they would be considered citizens.
Elected officials tend to concern themselves with maintaining the underpinnings of the Constitution when they oppose the Supreme Court’s interpretation, Strauss said, adding that politicians must work responsibly and “in good faith.”
“I think responsible action involves acknowledging the complexity of our constitutional conditions, recognizing the Constitution is the work of many people, many judges and justices for sure, in an effort to try to make our society a little bit better,” Strauss said.
As a constitutional law professor, Strauss said skeptics often challenge him, claiming that constitutional law is just politics and that Supreme Court justices get appointed along party lines to handle immediate court issues.
“The ‘it’ that you’re trying to figure out is the collective work of generations of judges but other people too, trying to make our Constitution order as good as it can be,” Strauss said.
No clear answer
Throughout his lecture, Strauss emphasized the tricky nature of allowing too much power or oversight by either branch and how each must do what they believe is right on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s not clear what the answer is,” Strauss said. “Once you understand that the constitution involves more than just, say, the text and the framers’ understanding, then this problem both becomes more complicated and less dramatic.”
First year law student Grant Cole acknowledged the importance of having this discussion in order to strengthen the idea of judicial precedent.
“You don't just want to blindly adhere to things just because that's just the way they are,” Cole said. “You want to have reasons behind them.”
Strauss hopes students and faculty gained a better understanding of this complex issue as well the as moral importance of U.S. Constitutional law. Every lawyer has an obligation to take the law seriously, he said.
The John Sibley Lecture was founded in 1964 by the Charles Loridans Foundation of Atlanta. In previous years, the lecture featured prominent individuals in public services, such as former President Jimmy Carter, and Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia, UGA Law School Dean Peter “Bo” Rutledge said in his introduction.
The next event in the Signature Lecture Series will take place on April 25 at 11 a.m. in the UGA Chapel and features University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst.