Justices rising above politics | Opinion


Item: The federal government recognizes “sexual abuse of a minor” in statutory rape cases only if the victim is younger than 16.

Item: Otherwise reasonable use of force does not become unreasonable because police “provoked” the confrontation by other errors, such as wrongfully entering premises without a warrant.

Item: State courts cannot entertain lawsuits against corporations not “at home” in their state and for activity that occurred somewhere else.

Item: When a company sells a patented product, patent law does not enable that company to restrict how people use it.

These rulings, which the Supreme Court handed down on Tuesday, may not be the most exciting or remarkable –save for one thing very much worth remarking upon: They were all unanimous, or nearly so.

In the country’s tense political atmosphere, the political branches of government too often operate on the principle that “because the other side is for it, we must be against it.” Thankfully, the judicial branch has not reached that low, instead evincing more dedication to professional restraint than it often gets credit for.

Five-to-four decisions, and judges and justices ruling along ideological lines corresponding to the party of the president who appointed them – these certainly occur, and they get attention, fueling suspicions that the court is incapable of separating its work from raw politics. Significant fractures among the justices exist, and they may yet become more visible on the next decision day: The court still has the Trinity Lutheran case to decide, on whether church properties can be excluded from a Missouri state initiative to help nonprofits renovate playgrounds. The Supreme Court enjoys a higher public approval rating than the other branches, but it is lower than it used to be – and may decline further, now that the Senate has eliminated filibusters on judicial nominees, clearing the way for more ideological appointments.

Yet none of this is cause for indulging in a self-defeating cynicism that proclaims it impossible for judges to rise above the bitter partisanship that has infected the other two branches. In fact, as Tuesday’s rulings showed, much of the court’s work is cooperative, not confrontational. That is true even though the justices consider hard cases: Each of the rulings handed down Tuesday reversed findings from a lower appeals court. It would have been all too easy for less thoughtful justices to split on, say, whether there should be more opportunity to hold police liable for using force. Instead, they unanimously overturned a ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

It is jurists’ task to continue to cultivate a culture of professional responsibility, and it is society’s to expect them to do so. This must be done in the full knowledge that no judge is perfect; they may at times allow personal preferences to color their reading of the law. Though they will never reach it, they deserve respect as long as they are pursuing the judicial ideal.

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