Wielding exceptional influence (10/09/2011)

For a department of government that Alexander Hamilton described as “the least dangerous branch,” the federal judiciary has wielded exceptional influence on the course of American politics and has, more than once, found itself in the white-hot cauldron of presidential politics.

No decision rendered by the Supreme Court can match the transcendent importance of its decision in 2000, in Bush v. Gore, in which the court’s ruling guaranteed that George W. Bush would become the nation’s 43rd president. But the court has played a key role in other presidential races. The justices themselves have been whipping boys for those seeking the Oval Office.

In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt earned a landslide victory, achieved in part by virtue of his unremitting criticism of the crusty old conservatives, dubbed the Four Horsemen, whom he blamed for the court’s rulings that scuttled his administrative and legislative efforts to lift the nation from the depths of the Great Depression. FDR declared to American voters that the outdated, “horse and buggy jurisprudence” of the conservative wing needed to be replaced with a modern outlook toward the Constitution and the needs of the country.

In 1968, Richard Nixon ran a campaign for the White House that blamed the Warren court for the lawlessness that afflicted America in the 1960s. Chief Justice Earl Warren and the other “liberals” that dominated the Supreme Court had, according to Nixon, turned the Constitution upside down and favored the “criminals” over law-abiding citizens. The court, he told voters, with a wink and a nod to Southerners who resented judicial rulings that promoted integration, racial equality and civil rights, badly needed reform. If elected, Nixon promised, he would appoint “strict constructionists,” a term of art that referred to judges who were hostile to racial equality.

Over the years, the court has issued rulings that have brought more than one presidency to an end. In the spring of 1952, the court held in the landmark steel seizure case that President Harry Truman’s seizure of the steel industry was unconstitutional. While Truman had said that he had already decided not to seek re-election, the door to another term was slammed shut by the court’s ruling. In 1974, in the Watergate tapes case, the court in a unanimous decision ordered President Nixon to release to the special prosecutor the taped conversations that revealed that he was conducting a cover-up of the Watergate scandal. Within three weeks, Nixon resigned the presidency and poisoned the GOP brand in the off-year elections.

The court’s expected ruling in June 2012 on the constitutionality of the Affordable Health Care Act, in the midst of a presidential election, promises to thrust the judiciary yet again into a leading role in the determination of the next president.