U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling in the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. State-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th amendment and was therefore unconstitutional. This historic decision marked the end of the “separate but equal” precedent set by the Supreme Court nearly 60 years earlier in Plessy v. Ferguson and served as a catalyst for the expanding civil rights movement during the decade of the 1950s.
Obviously, the Supreme Court considers both itself and its decisions supreme over Congress. However, the Constitution disagrees – it deliberately empowers Congress with greater power. For example, the Constitution gives Congress the authority to set the salaries for judges, determine the size of the Judiciary, establish the scope of the Judiciary’s jurisdiction and the types of cases which come before it. Furthermore, judges cannot serve without the approval of Congress, and Congress may remove judges with whom it is dissatisfied. These are just some of the “constitutional arms” for Congress’ “powers of self-defense” (Federalist 73, Alexander Hamilton).
The Constitution clearly places many of the operations of the Judiciary under the oversight of Congress – a power not granted reciprocally to the Judiciary. This is made clear in the Federalist Papers (described by James Madison as “the most authentic exposition of the heart of the federal Constitution”), which confirm that subjugating the Judiciary to Congress was deliberate and intentional. Federalist #51 declares:
The legislative authority necessarily predominates.
Federalist #78 then proclaims:
The Judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power.
Furthermore, Federalist #49 declares that Congress – not the Court – is “the confidential guardians of [the people’s] rights and liberties.” Why? Because the Legislature – not the unelected judiciary – is closest to the people and most responsive to them. In fact, the Court’s own history proves that it is not a proficient guardian of the people’s rights. For example, after the Civil War, Congress passed civil rights laws forbidding segregation, but the Court struck down these laws and instead instituted “separate but equal” in Plessey v. Ferguson. (While the Court eventually ended this racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, that decision was merely the Court’s reversal of its own segregation standard previously established in Plessey.)
Moreover, had it been up to the Court, slavery would have never ended: in 1857, the Court declared it unconstitutional for the other branches to end slavery or to free slaves. Fortunately, Congress ignored that decision by declaring freedom for slaves in 1862 and President Lincoln also ignored that decision by issuing the “Emancipation Proclamation” in 1863. All substantive progress in civil rights after the Civil War was accomplished only after Congress used Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution to remove Reconstruction issues from the Court’s reach. Indeed, history demonstrates that the Court is less than a faithful guardian of the people’s rights, violating the people’s liberties as often as it protects them. As Thomas Jefferson pointed out:
Our judges are as honest as other men and not more so. They have, with others, the same passions for party, for power, and the privilege of their corps. . . . and their power the more dangerous as they are in office for life and not responsible, as the other functionaries are, to the elective control.
Today, the Court claims that it is the only body capable of interpreting the Constitution – that Congress is incapable of determining constitutionality. However, the Founding Fathers vehemently disagreed. For example, James Madison declared:
[T]he meaning of the Constitution may as well be ascertained by the Legislative as by the Judicial authority.
Constitutional Convention delegate Luther Martin similarly attested:
A knowledge of mankind and of legislative affairs cannot be presumed to belong in a higher degree to the Judges than to the Legislature.
The Founders consistently opposed the Court being the final word on constitutionality. For example, Thomas Jefferson declared:
[T]o consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions [is] a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy. . . . The Constitution has erected no such single tribunal.
He further explained that if the Court was left unchecked:
The Constitution . . . [would be] a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary which they may twist and shape into any form they please.
Allowing the Court to enlarge its own sphere of power beyond what the Constitution authorizes, permitting the Court to usurp the powers of Congress, and tolerating the Courts’ disregard of constitutional separation of powers moves America ever further from being a representative republic and ever closer toward the oligarchy against which Jefferson warned. The Court must be resisted in these attempts.