In the Hobby Lobby cases, five male Justices of the Supreme Court, who are all members of the Catholic faith and who each were appointed by a President who hailed from the Republican party, decided that a huge corporation, with thousands of employees and gargantuan revenues, was a “person” entitled to assert a religious objection to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate because that corporation was “closely held” by family members. To the average person, the result looks stupid and smells worse.
To most people, the decision looks stupid ’cause corporations are not persons, all the legal mumbo jumbo notwithstanding. The decision looks misogynistic because the majority were all men. It looks partisan because all were appointed by a Republican. The decision looks religiously motivated because each member of the majority belongs to the Catholic church, and that religious organization is opposed to contraception. While “looks” don’t matter to the logic of the law (and I am not saying the Justices are actually motivated by such things), all of us know from experience that appearances matter to the public’s acceptance of the law.*
The Hobby Lobby cases illustrate why the Court ought to care more about Alexander Bickel’s “passive virtues“–that is, not deciding highly controversial cases (most of the time) if the Court can avoid the dispute.** What would have happened if the Supreme Court simply decided not to take the Hobby Lobby cases? What harm would have befallen the nation? What harm would have befallen Hobby Lobby family members who would have been free to express their religious beliefs as real persons? Had the Court sat on the sidelines, I don’t think any significant harm would have occurred. The most likely result is that one or more of the political branches of government would have worked something out. Or not. In any event, out of well over 300 million people, who would have cared if the law in different Circuits was different or the ACA’s contraception mandate was up in the air?
Next term is the time for the Supreme Court to go quiescent–this term and several past terms have proven that the Court is now causing more harm (division) to our democracy than good by deciding hot button cases that the Court has the power to avoid. As the kids say, it is time for the Court to stfu.***
*“Americans continue to take a dim view of the U.S. Supreme Court’s performance, perhaps in part because most still think the justices base their decisions on their own political agenda rather than the law.” Rasmusssen Reports, (Tuesday, June 24, 2014) (Only “26% Rate Supreme Court’s Performance Positively.”).
**Bickel was not trying to protect the Court itself. On the contrary, he realized that there were “hot button” cases that an anti-democratic Court would of necessity be required to resolve. It was for those rare “fate of the nation” cases, where the Court’s legitimacy mattered most to public acceptance of a really important decision, that required the Court to conserve this very scare resource.
***Thanks to June Edwards, one of the smartest lawyers I know, for stimulating this post last evening (July 4, 2014) as we sat on her pleasant patio overlooking a fire works display that illuminated the entire City of Omaha from our perch in the western hills. By the way, Charlie, the dog, was fine because Joan must have fed him 3 or 4 burgers plus all manner of other treats.