In theory, the US government is a simple set of checks and balances. However, in reality, it’s so comically complicated that even American elementary schools can’t help but acknowledge the government’s circus-like qualities.
This week one of the branches—the judiciary—has been all over the news media. To understand why, we need a quick reminder of how the Supreme Court works and why it’s so crucial to the American way of life.
Many are unaware of how important Aristotle was to the founding fathers of the United States. Seriously, they were all over him like white on rice. Aristotle talked about three types of government: democracy, oligarchy and polity. James Madison and the rest of the Philadelphia Convention lot decided that they were such big Aristotle fans that they would embrace all three.
Democracy, defined by the big A as “rule by the majority,” takes place in Congress, the legislative branch. Congress is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. When a new law comes to each group, members shout “Yea” or “Nay” and whichever side is the loudest has the majority and therefore wins. (Note: in the mid 1900s, they added paper ballots as well as some laws were incorrectly passed due to the presence of Sen. William “Big Mouth” Billingsley, whose voice the Speaker of the House ruled “unfairly blessed in the decibel department.”)
Oligarchy exists in the executive branch. An oligarchy is rule by the few. In this case, the few are those gentlemen who have been elected the President of the United States. Aristotle also said that oligarchy was rule by the wealthy and he wasn’t half right there, my friends. The President’s job is to give some speeches, appear posthumously on coins and, in recent years, be incorrectly blamed for a global economic crisis in an attempt to disguise some of the citizenry’s inherently racist beliefs. It’s a tough job, but he does get to live in a big white house for free while doing it.
This leaves us with polity; this is a form of government where all citizens take turns to rule and is what the Supreme Court is all about. Every July 4 the United States holds an event similar to the one in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. The Vice President drags a great big box onto the North Lawn, inside of which are slips of paper containing the names of every US citizen (over the age of eighteen, obviously). I forgot to mention that there’s a big crank on the side of the box. At exactly twelve noon, the festivities begin. (This event is thoughtfully broadcast live on all three major networks, and on a slight delay on Fox.) The First Lady gives the crank a few twirls (hence, Michelle Obama’s impressive bicep muscles), mixing up the papers inside. Over the box is one of those claw things which is carefully guided by the President into the box to select a single piece of paper. He continues doing this until he gets so frustrated that he quits (most recently this was after the ninth go). Then he reads aloud each name from the slips and introduces them as this year’s lucky “Justices.”
The Justices then go home to pack and in October are shipped off to the “Supreme Court,” a sort of Big Brother-type set up where they live, eat and sleep together while reading over and hearing arguments about the decisions they’ll be asked to make. Monthly, they each take turns in the Diary Room, sharing their insights, asking for additional information and talking about how much they miss their families.
Eventually they’ll all come together to make a collective decision about the right or wrong-ness of the issues put before them, and this is what they have been doing just recently. They then get a big party and get out so the cleaners can get to work in preparing the Supreme Court for the next year’s chosen few.
There have been some big topics on the table this year, and I’m sure it’s been difficult. They had to decide on issues as varied as prisoners’ rights, copyright protection, forced euthanasia of sick livestock and if US citizens born in Jerusalem can list Israel as their birthplace on their passports. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall for some of those conversations!
The decisions that got the most media attention were, of course, whether or not the Health Care Act was legit (their decision: yes); whether or not individual states could actually let people rather than corporations decide election results (their decision: no); and whether or not individual states can allow police to harass people with brown skin and/or interestingly spelled surnames (their decision: yes and no).
I will admit, though, that the Supreme Court decision that really blew my mind was when they ruled on the unconstitutionality of the Katie Holmes-Tom Cruise marriage. I just did not see that coming. I’m really wondering if that case would have come up at all had James Van Der Beek‘s name not been selected last July.