Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Blind Faith

KEEPING THE FAITH: A Cultural History of the U.S. Supreme Court;\o7 By John E. Semonche; (Rowman & Littlefield: 502 pp., $39.95)\f7

July 04, 1999|EDWARD LAZARUS | Edward Lazarus is the author of "Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall and Future of the Modern Supreme Court."

The Supreme Court of the United States lends itself easily to the metaphor of a church. Its building, perched atop Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Hill, is fashioned after a Greek temple. Its courtroom, adorned with marble columns and rich velvet drapery, is arranged with a raised dais from which the justices (the judiciary's high priests) preside and plain wooden pews for the parishioners (lawyers and laypersons) attending its functions. Emerging from the building's private cloisters, the justices don black vestments to perform their public duties, and they interpret the Constitution--our political commandments--in opinions laced with prophetic judgments condemning the apostasies of other sectors of government.

In "Keeping the Faith," John E. Semonche, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has taken this metaphor and made it the organizing principle of the court's entire history. In Semonche's view, throughout its 200-year existence, the court has served as the fashioner and keeper of our "civil religion," which he describes as a moral creed emanating from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that places paramount importance on national unity and the protection of individual rights. Rather than serving as referees or neutral arbiters of our society's legal conflicts, the justices, Semonche argues, have been (and should be) "committed players," evangelists promoting the cohesion of the national community by recognizing the equality, liberty and fundamental "dignity" of every individual. Indeed, "Keeping the Faith" is a celebration both of these values and the court's role in nurturing them.

In Semonche's account, three tenets of our national scripture are of greatest significance. First is the Declaration of Independence's affirmation of the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal" and are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights." Second is the Constitution's preamble, which identifies the document as the creation not of separate states or of elected representatives but of the people. "We the people," he reminds us of its opening lines, "of the United States in order to form a more perfect Union. . . ." And third, not surprisingly, is the Bill of Rights, with its specific guarantees of individual liberty.

These documents, according to Semonche, formed a distinctly American creed from which the Supreme Court emerged, gradually but persistently, as the main protector and expositor. From the outset, he claims, the justices of the Supreme Court viewed national cohesion (as opposed to states' rights) as a "precondition for the protection of individual rights" and saw their ultimate responsibility "as safeguarding these rights." In so doing, they have served, he claims, as our "national conscience" and a "significant unifying force within [our] pluralistic society," educating "the people as to their responsibilities under the civic faith."

Tracing the court's trajectory from origins so humble that George Washington had difficulty rounding up a first chief justice through its current ascendancy as the final arbiter of our laws, Semonche describes the court's history as a sometimes halting but always inevitable ascension toward the nationalist, civil libertarian ideals he places at the heart of our civil religion. In the process, he cloaks all the favorite legal principles of contemporary liberals--such as affirmative action, abortion rights, the rigorous separation of church and state and a broad view of freedom of speech--with the vestments of quasi-religious justification. And Semonche builds his case for the court's progressive march toward liberalism impressively, deploying not only the familiar landmark cases of constitutional law--such as Marbury vs. Madison and Brown vs. Board of Education--but also lesser known cases in fields ranging from the court's treatment of the fugitive slave laws before the Civil War to its attitude toward McCarthyism in the middle of this century.

Despite its considerable scholarship, "Keeping the Faith" is ultimately unconvincing. In historical terms, it is certainly true, as Semonche claims, that the court has served at times as a guardian of national unity, equality and individual liberty. Early on, under Chief Justice John Marshall, it established not only its own authority to declare unconstitutional the acts of elected legislatures but also the supremacy of federal laws and interests over those of the states. And, more recently, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the court dramatically expanded the power of the federal government vis-a-vis the states, broadened civil liberties and, in Brown vs. Board of Education and after, breathed new life into the constitutional promise of equality.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|