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The Mystery of the Supreme Court

Of the 3 branches of government, most of us know far less about the judiciary than the others. We see the workings and the blunders of the legislative branch and the executive branch every day. We have less insight into the Supreme Court at the top of the federal judiciary. Its deliberations are secret.

A remarkable book, called Out of Order, written by retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, strikingly illuminates the history of the court from its humble and shaky beginnings to its imposing authority today. As she described it, we obviously need legislators to make laws and the president to enforce them, but why did the Framers of the Constitution in creating this powerful national government to reflect and implement the popular will of the people feel the need to create a judicial branch whose members weren't elected?

They knew that the political branches needed a check. In short, they couldn't be fully trusted in every way. For example, they couldn't be relied on to protect minority groups with less popular interests. Everyone had to have a voice in this republic that we call the United States, and the only way to preserve everyone's voice was to have a right to a hearing in court.

The Supreme Court building on One First Street in Washington is a monument to the Framers' vision. Its marble steps and columns are imposing. Contrary to that grand perception, Justice O'Connor describes the early days of the court as a "daring, bold, but risky political experiment." She goes so far as to say that the court's beginnings were "modest and uncertain." That is hard to imagine in an era in which the court has been so powerful in defining women's rights to abortion, integration requirements in schools, and the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

In my next segments, as time permits, I would like to share this evolution with you. It reads like an intriguing novel.


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