Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Of Prop 8 and the Judicial System

As everyone's heard already, I assume, Proposition 8 has been deemed unconstitutional by a judge in California, facing outrage from religious groups. Déjà vu...

The religious groups have repeatedly said that this issue should be left to the 'people' (aka a slim majority) to decide, and disapprove of judges stepping in. They call this "legislating from the bench," and, from a populist point of view, it's a perfect rallying point - power to the people! Why should appointed judges be able to counter what the people say? Isn't that what democracy's all about?

Wait, but then what's the judicial system for? The Constitution designed the American political system to have checks and balances. No one branch of government can have absolute power; the three branches must work together for progress to be made. When I first learned about the three branches of government in detail, it struck me that judges were not democratically elected and that Supreme Court justices were appointed for life. But then, the more that I think about it, the more it makes sense.

One key shortcoming of pure democracy is, in my opinion, the "tyranny of the majority" - one group, if they hold a numerical majority, can pass any laws they please, including discriminatory laws. Even in the American political system, it's essential for Congressmen and presidential candidates to pander to middle America - if not, where would they get votes from? So, the legislative and executive branches can often do little in the way of expanding the rights of minorities, especially minorities that the majority discriminates against. So then, whose responsibility is it to protect the rights of minorities? The judicial branch.

Because justices are appointed for life, politicized though their confirmation hearings may be, they can hold and express politically unpopular opinions, as long as they can justify it through law. This allows them to protect the rights of minorities better than the other two branches can. For example, if Brown v. Board of Education were decided by vote, would it really have passed? What about Loving v. Virginia, which ended bans on interracial marriage? Of course not - the white majority was mainly in favor of segregation and bans on interracial marriage, so the black minority would have continued to be oppressed. These decisions, among others, helped give strength to the Civil Rights movement and cleared the way for other branches of government to pass laws confirming these rights.

For these reasons, I believe that judges' decisions should carry more respect and not be automatically rejected as undemocratic. People seem to think of the judicial system as a rubber-stamping organization that should always listen to and follow the demands of the 'people' (again, the majority). However, judges do not and should not follow the demands of the 'people'. They follow the demands of the law.

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