The Supreme Court and Christian faith

March 10th, 2016

Justice Antonin Scalia

The news of the passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13 has sent ripples all across the political world. Scalia, who served on the court for 29 years, was a stalwart conservative voice. “He was fundamentalist in both his faith and his constitutional interpretation,” said Paul Clement, a former clerk of Scalia and one-time solicitor general.

Although Scalia was known as a conservative, he had unusual friendships with some of the more liberal members of the court. According to David Axelrod, a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama, when a vacancy on the court arose due to a justice’s retirement, Scalia actively advocated for the appointment of Elena Kagan, known for her liberal views. Axelrod writes, “If Scalia could not have a philosophical ally in the next court appointee, he had hoped, at least, for one with the heft to give him a good, honest fight.”

In addition to Kagan, Scalia was very good friends with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg’s liberal views also made her an unlikely candidate to be personal friends with Scalia. Their friendship was so legendary, however, that it spawned the idea of an opera based on their friendship, which premiered last year.

The congeniality that existed between Scalia and his colleagues, despite their ideological differences, is not being mirrored in the other branches of government as a replacement for Scalia is considered. Because Scalia’s passing leaves the Supreme Court at an even number, 4–4, and because the split is also along ideological lines, a fight looms over picking a replacement for him. President Obama has stated that he plans to nominate a successor, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “This vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.” 

This conundrum is working itself out on the campaign trail as well. Candidates from both sides are weighing in on whether the President ought to nominate someone and whether the Senate ought to hold confirmation hearings. It’s a drama that’s likely to be playing itself out for several months.

Role in government

In order to consider the Supreme Court’s role in our government, it’s good to go right to the source. The Supreme Court was established by Article III, Section 1 of the United States Constitution. This article states, “The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”

Though the Constitution provides for the existence of the court, it doesn’t actually specify any of the details. The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the size of the court, which at that time were six justices: one chief and five associates. That number varied until it was set at the current number of nine justices in the Judiciary Act of 1869.

About 10,000 petitions are sent to the Supreme Court each year. Because it’s the highest court in the land, four justices have to feel that the case has value in order for it even to be considered. Then, after all of the case files from previous hearings have been reviewed, a decision is made about whether to hear the case. The Supreme Court hears between 75–85 cases per year, a very small number compared to the number of petitions it receives.

In order for the court to hear a petition, it typically will require that the case be of national importance and involve the Constitution. Cases for the Supreme Court can also arise when the lower courts cannot agree on a resolution. The Supreme Court’s decision then becomes a precedent that all of the lower courts have to follow.

This civics lesson may sound mundane, but it’s important to recognize the authority of the Supreme Court. The ability to settle constitutional questions and set precedents is quite powerful, which explains the great controversy surrounding President Obama’s decision to nominate a replacement for Scalia during an election year.

The Supreme Court was set to decide some very important cases concerning everything from abortion to voting rights. Out of those cases, only two (abortion and immigration) were considered to lean more in conservatives’ favor, according to USA Today. Since Scalia’s passing leaves the court in an even split, should the justices tie in their voting, the decisions from the lower court would stand. Deciding who the next justice will be will have a huge impact for years to come. 

Justice — not just a title

In God’s reign, of course, there are no “conservative” or “liberal” issues. They are all issues of justice. defines justice as “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals.” That’s the “simple” definition, according to Merriam-Webster; but the “full” definition is more complex than this, even though the simple definition may be what many people think of when they hear the word justice.

Biblically speaking, the definition of justice that’s most important comes from Merriam-Webster’s full definition, part 2: “the quality of being just, impartial or fair.” In the Bible, God is most concerned that the poor are treated with justice.

In the Book of Exodus, as God is laying out the details of the covenant to Moses, God makes a concern about justice for the poor very clear. Exodus 23:6 says, “Don’t undermine the justice that your poor deserve in their lawsuits.” The next verse continues, “Stay away from making a false charge. Don’t put an innocent person who is in the right to death, because I will not consider innocent those who do such evil.”

As part of the covenant, then, the people were called to treat one another with justice, especially the vulnerable, who might only have recourse to God for an appeal if treated unfairly. In Deuteronomy 16:18-20, the people are instructed to appoint judges for each tribe but with the stipulation that “they must judge the people fairly” and not show favoritism.

The prophets spoke against the leaders of the people for many reasons, but one of their favorite complaints was about the injustice inflicted upon the poor and vulnerable. Isaiah wrote, “Doom to those who pronounce wicked decrees, and keep writing harmful laws to deprive the needy of their rights and to rob the poor among my people of justice” (Isaiah 10:1-2). Though God had mandated justice for the poor, it was clear that this call had gone unheeded.

The members of the Supreme Court are given the title justice, but it’s clear that this word should be more than a title. Ideally, it would be a characteristic of all decisions made by the court. Justice Scalia’s friendship with other justices on the court, even when they didn’t share his thoughts on how to interpret the Constitution, might also serve as an example of how people can disagree and still conduct business with one another. All branches of government might benefit from this example and follow the call for justice so clearly expressed in Scripture.

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