The Pendulum Swings
When history looks back at the just completed term of the Supreme Court of the United States it will view it as the end point of the pendulum swing toward an imperial presidency and the beginning of a return toward a government more respectful of constitutional rights.
In an amazing set of landmark decisions handed down by the high court during the last week of its term the justices have placed limits on executive power, upheld the constitutional prerogatives of congress, reaffirmed the constitutional prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, validated religious freedom, and protected Americans from forced association.
It is an enduring tribute to the wisdom of our Founding Fathers that the government they established during the Constitutional convention of 1787 and the subsequent addition of the Bill of Rights devised a system of government that, however tenuous, works to this day. In this case, a president found that although he has a pen and a phone, the constitution is a more powerful instrument. And, even when a feckless and inept congressional leadership allowed itself to be run over roughshod by an autocratic administration, the third branch of government – in this case the judiciary – stepped forward to reassert the primacy of the constitution.
Individually the court decisions covered a wide range of issues with each case posing a threat to constitutional rights. The common thread was in every instance the court did what the founders envisioned it doing and protected the liberties granted to us by our Creator and spelled out in our nation’s governing document.
While most of the cases were decided by narrow 5-4 majorities, a cause for concern moving forward, the Justices did unanimously rule against the President’s usurpation of congressional confirmation powers by upholding the right of the U.S. Senate to decide for itself when it is in fact in session. At specific issue were appointments to the National Labor Relations Board made by the president while the senate remained in session but not fully present in the capitol. The president argued that was a recess during which time he could make appointments without senate confirmation. The court ruled otherwise, bringing to a close the presidential end-run around congress and the constitution.
In a major win for individual rights, the court held that the federal government cannot require family-owned corporations to provide contraceptive benefits to employees if it violates their religious beliefs. Under the Affordable Health Care Act the administration had sought to force the national craft chain Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Products in Lancaster County to provide such benefits despite their religious objections. While the ruling was narrowly applied to corporations in which the corporation is indistinguishable from the family that owns it, it did mark the first time the high court has extended religious freedom protections to corporations.
The court also issued a sweeping ruling protecting the privacy rights of every American by requiring law enforcement authorities to obtain a search warrant before looking at the contents of an individual’s cellular telephone. Chief Justice Roberts humorously observed that "the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy."
President Obama was not the only one reeled in by the court’s recent rulings. Ruling in an Illinois case the Justices collared public sector labor unions that had been forcing thousands of in-home health care workers to pay union dues. The court held that practice violated the first amendment rights of workers who might disagree with union policy and political positions.
Thomas Jefferson once observed that: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of patriots and tyrants." In his time there was little recourse to obtain liberty than by armed rebellion to win and protect it. He and his compatriots embarked on a Great Experiment to provide a peaceful means of refreshing our God-given rights. This past week, for the time being at least, the experiment worked.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.)
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