With Our System of Courts, the Founding Fathers Got It Right

Two recent developments make clear that the American form of government, with its system of checks and balances, is still proving the wisdom of our founding fathers.  It’s a great system.

The New Jersey Supreme Court came down hard on an aggressive governor who is not used to being hammered by anyone. And he gave in.

In an unrelated case, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke up strongly for what she believed was an abuse of police power. She was outvoted, 8-1, but she stood up for a principle and her dissent ultimately may influence the high court’s future decisions.  

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that much of Governor Chris Christie’s spending cuts were unconstitutional. It ordered the legislature to raise spending for poor, urban schools by $500 million next year.  The court accused the state government of willfully violating other Supreme Court rulings in a dispute that has raged since the 1970s.  

“Like anyone else the state is not free to walk away from judicial orders,” Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote in the 3-2 decision. With reluctance the governor said he would comply with the court’s decision, but he vowed with cranky words to remake the court some day with more conservative judges:

 “I’m going to appoint people who I believe understand their job, which is to interpret the law and not make law from the bench.” He clearly thinks the New Jersey high court is much too liberal, thanks to appointments made by earlier governors.

 Justice Ginsburg, a daughter of Brooklyn, is as tough as Christie in pushing for her views. Last week she dissented from a ruling by her eight colleagues that affirmed that police did not violate the Fourth Amendment by kicking in the door of an apartment from which the odor of marijuana was coming. 

They were justified, the high court said, because they heard sounds that suggested the residents were rushing to hide the drugs. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. said that officers may break in if they hear sounds and suspect that evidence is being destroyed.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.” In her dissent Ginsburg asked: “How ‘secure’ do our homes remain if police, armed with no warrant, can pound on doors at will and….forcibly enter?”

The court majority, said Ginsburg, “today arms the police with a way routinely to dishonor the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in drug cases.”

So how much power should our government have? It’s understandable that the matter is still being debated 222 years after the founding of the republic.

Brian O’Dwyer, a civil rights lawyer, told me that the actions of the New Jersey Supreme Court and Justice Ginsburg “demonstrate the brilliance of the founders. There is a system of checks and balances. And the judicial branch stands as an independent force, monitoring the behavior of the other branches of government.”

Arthur T.  Vanderbilt put it well: “If citizens have respect for the work of their courts, their respect for law will survive the shortcomings of every other branch of government.”      

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