George F. Will: Stanford professor misplaces disdain for court

Published: Sunday, Dec. 30 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Today's American public does not share Karlan's nostalgia for the Warren court, which she says was "optimistic about the possibility of politics." Karlan subscribes to the progressive axiom that the cure for the ills of democracy is democracy, meaning elections. She sees little need for courts to protect against what the Founders feared — liberty-threatening excesses of majorities. With a true progressive's impatience with the crux of the Constitution, the separation of powers, Karlan wants the court to consider Congress "a full partner in seeking to address the nation's pressing problems." But often our institutions preserve liberty by being rivals rather than collaborators.

She abhors the conservative justices' "combination of institutional distrust — the court is better at determining constitutional meaning — and substantive distrust — congressional power must be held in check." Clearly she thinks Congress would be "better" at judging the limits of its own power. This fits her assumption that restraints on its power are presumptively anti-democratic.

She concludes: "For if the justices disdain us, how ought we to respond?" Her pronoun radiates democratic sentimentality — "us" conflates the citizenry and Congress. Today, just 18 percent of the citizenry approves of Congress' performance. What becomes of Karlan's argument when the conservative justices' distrust of Congress, for which she disdains them as anti-democratic, is exceeded by the public's distrust of Congress?

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com

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