In most of the cases it decides, the Supreme Court is what it presents itself as: a court of law. The justices apply preexisting rules and standards set forth, for example, in the Constitution and statutes passed by Congress, to a dizzying array of human and institutional behaviors.
But in many highly contested cases, especially those involving the definition of broad-based rights, the Supreme Court is only slightly more a court of law than the House of Representatives or the Senate. Here the justices are often covertly and ashamedly quasi-legislative, actually deciding what sort of a society they wish to call into being, designating winners and losers on the basis what they want or hope will be best.
A powerful mythology keeps the Supreme Court and its constituencies from acknowledging this. Sore losers often claim they have been cheated by life-tenured federal judges, but such complaints are promptly forgotten because today's angry critic is tomorrow's triumphant victor, suddenly extolling the fairness of the justices.
Judges, lawyers and the interested public usually end up colluding in promoting the idea that when the Supreme Court decides that corporations have the same speech rights as natural persons, or that there need not be a recount in a contested presidential election, or that sodomy cannot be a crime, or that racial segregation in education is not only abhorrent but a violation of the Constitution, the rule of law, not the rule of men, is in operation.
The core notion we cling to is basic civics. Though chosen democratically, the justices are not elected. The information they receive and their legitimacy are rightly circumscribed, the former by laws that surround the way decisions are reached, and the latter by their unaccountability. It is feared that if the Supreme Court talked about what serious observers concede, that many major rulings are a result of value choices made in a legal context rather than on strict application of a legal rule or precedent, the ensuing contradictions would undermine the public's acceptance of its decisions.
Justice Sonia Sotomayer came as close as justices of the Supreme Court ever do to crossing this line when she pointed out the glaring inconsistency between the court's assurances in the Hobby Lobby contraception case and a decision granting Wheaton College an injunction four days later. Despite becoming instantly famous, her blunt language -- "Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today." -- stops far short of what an elected politician might say in a similar situation
Deeply embedded in the discourse that follows decisions in epochal cases is talk about the way the Supreme Court's reasoning connects to its conclusions and the practical consequences of the ruling. All can condemn or praise the work of the Supreme Court, but only entrenched partisans are likely to claim that the decision is purely political.
What Supreme Court majorities never admit is that the past is so contingent, and the choices made by other governmental actors so unclear, that nothing is left for the Supreme Court to do but what it thinks best under the circumstances. The thought is that it would be institutionally damaging to admit that the justices just choose the reasonable and wise course, in effect conceding that they truly act as a "revolutionary committee," as A.A. Berle once memorably put it. Given such an admission, would the next voice say, "Why not leave these choices to the elected?"
But maintaining the myth is costly. Because both unhappy losers and Supreme Court analysts know that all too often the threads of the law said to dispose of a case really stand only as a thin cover of justification (rather as an honest search for solution), the result is large-scale cynicism. Law students learn early in their first year the difference between the language of opinions and what really cuts the mustard. Practicing lawyers know well the difference between rhetoric and reality.
This gap between actual and masked reasons for a decision muddies the waters and inhibits healthy debate. And it is unnecessary. Perhaps there was a time when, in order to respect the law, the public had to believe that it was found somewhere outside our judges, a "brooding omnipresence," as it was called, but no longer. Given the massive exposure in the media to what passes for law making, people today are not quite so naïve.
More importantly, we need the justices to do more of what they do well. A deliberative process responsive to objective evidence and narrowed to real controversies is a paramount governmental function. There is probably no better way to meet the need to manage the existential controversies of a complex society than a judicial process that presents the true bases of decisions. What is no longer sustainable is the illusion that in these major cases the justices are merely the mouthpiece for decisions made by Congress or settled long ago by James Madison and his colleagues.
Michael Meltsner, Matthews Distinguished Professor of Law at Northeastern University School of Law, is the author of The Making of a Civil Rights Lawyer.