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What’s So Supreme About It?

On the Beat


“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” — Winston Churchill, 1947

MAJORITY OF ONE: Churchill’s remark might have been influenced by the fact that British voters had ousted the wartime prime minister from office.

Look, I can handle majority rule, but a majority of one? On the federal side, we have one president, one guy deciding vital Supreme Court rulings, and one senator, in effect, running Congress.

Barney Brantingham

(And maybe one Santa Barbara City councilmember calling the shots.)

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the country is being ruled by someone you probably never heard of and who was not elected. This is not wild conspiracy craziness. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy just decided for all of us that it’s perfectly okay for corporations to spend as much dough as they want bankrolling federal elections. The activist Republican judges thereby reversed a century-old Supreme Court decision.

“Somewhere, John D. Rockefeller is smiling,” New Jersey state Senator Bill Baroni observed after last week’s 5-4 Supreme Court ruling. “This goes back to the robber baron days.” The decision also frees unions from spending restrictions, but considering the weak state of unionization, it’s hardly equal — like pitting an NFL team against the Santa Barbara Dons.

Kennedy, as he’s done in other crucial 5-4 decisions, was the deciding vote. In the interests of efficiency, if Kennedy is going to rule the roost, why don’t the other justices just stay home and read Marbury v. Madison? That landmark ruling, in 1803, was the first time the court declared something unconstitutional. It said it could okay or slap down anything it pleased.

Just recently, Kennedy also voted with the 5-4 conservative majority to slap a federal judge in California for the sin (horrors!) of saying the public (what rights does it have, anyway?) could view, via Internet broadcast, a current trial about whether Proposition 8 should be overturned. Voters last year okayed the measure, which banned same-sex marriage in California.

The Supreme Court ruling was not surprising. It just revealed the Supremes’ thinly veiled distaste for gay marriage and its revulsion at the very thought of the unwashed public actually observing what goes on in federal courts. The Supremes themselves would rather suffer another President Obama-appointed justice than have their proceedings televised as a civics lesson.

Oddly, in a body dedicated to justice, the court may be the most secretive governmental organ in Washington, except perhaps for the FBI or CIA. It’s a high-stakes game, not just because a conservative-reactionary majority happens to be holding sway, but because the court constitutes priesthood whose holy writ is the supreme law of the land, and cannot be challenged. No appeal, sorry. The president can nominate Supreme Court justices, subject only to the Senate’s “advice and consent.” Once seated, justices sit for life.

If Kennedy & Co. can toss into the trash-can a century-old limitation against Big Business using its bucks to buy elections, how much chance does Roe v. Wade have — the landmark 7-0 decision legalizing abortion, whose 37th anniversary was celebrated last Friday? What else is on Kennedy’s agenda?

While the presidency and Congress are subject to daily attacks, the Supreme Court quietly dons its regal robes, answers to no one, and takes cover between hearings. So how to reform it and bring it into the 21st century?

One of the main criticisms of the court, other than its obsessive star-chamber secrecy, is that it’s woefully out of touch. Justices, from their Olympian heights, always seem behind the times, critics have long lamented. In their sanctum sanctorum, they seem more interested in restoring the aforementioned world of robber barons than showing concern about, for example, the erosion of individual rights.

One solution: Term limits. Or mandatory retirement, or both. (Ironically, it was the young(er) Republicans who erased the century-old precedent limiting corporate campaign contributions.) Elephants will surely take wing before the Supremes subject themselves to anything resembling term limits.

As for the hundred-millionaires club House of Lords known as the U.S. Senate: It only takes the whim of one senator to break the 60-vote block now required to prevent the minority from filibustering a bill to death. Obama had it — then lost it last week when Massachusetts elected a Republican to the seat so long occupied by the late Ted Kennedy.

On such vicissitudes of politics ride health-care reform, and much more.

As for Santa Barbara’s City Council: It too is split ideologically, three and three. If the factions take opposing sides on some issue, newly elected Bendy White, the seventh councilmember, is the swing vote. This makes Bendy, a moderate and not a power-seeker, one powerful guy.

We’ll most likely see the tension rise highest in land-use cases. Bendy is a development consultant but also led the Measure B campaign to limit building heights downtown. Voters rejected the measure, however, even while electing him. In any case, this is a far different council than the pro-growth bodies of the past.

For one thing, the huge Levytown-La Entrada project at the foot of State Street — now lost in limbo — and the Chapala Street mega-condos couldn’t be approved now. Let’s hope.

Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns throughout the week and a print column on Thursdays.



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