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PRUITT: Supreme Court’s perception gap

High court’s judges only have eyes for the Constitution

- - Friday, June 15, 2012

We're at the two-minute warning in the health care debate, with a Supreme Court decision expected by the end of this month. No matter the outcome, the brunt of the criticism will fall at the feet of nine Americans entrusted with upholding our liberty.

The popularity of the U.S. Supreme Court is at an all-time low, leaving justices fighting their way out of an unfamiliar and undeserved chasm between reality and public perception. The fact that the judicial branch is still more likely than the president or Congress to be chosen for a constitutional pickup game offers little solace. This is bad news.

Just 52 percent of Americans reported having a favorable opinion of the Supreme Court in a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. I don't know on what the other 48 percent are basing their votes, but I'm certain it's not what I witnessed from the court's front row during the health care arguments in April or what court watchers heard during debate on immigration.

What we found was a dedicated group of scholars seeking the truth as they knew it for the betterment of our nation, free of the dysfunction that afflicts Congress and devoid of the executive's incessant hunger for control.

From a front-row seat, I watched history unfold with capable litigators at the helm, arguing the Constitution before nine justices. After my three days of firsthand observation, it became clear that the court is the only true survivor of the Constitutional Convention.

I don't know what the outcome will be for the health care act or Arizona's immigration stance, but the Supreme Court is doing its job, and we should all be grateful.

We should be encouraged by the justices' conviction and commitment to the court's constitutional moorings. Americans may not know the legal citations of the U.S. Constitution, but they know what the Constitution means.

It was the vision of proper gentlemen 200 years ago in Philadelphia that set this debate in motion with an idea that Congress and a chief executive required checks and balances, and thus was born the U.S. Supreme Court.

During one of the worst summers in more than three decades, 50-plus delegates in knee-length coats came together under the leadership of George Washington to fight for a government of the people and by the people. It was a new country with new possibilities. It was the Miracle at Philadelphia.

They argued the merits of a president and court having dual authority to revise our laws, and they struggled with veto power. They ultimately settled on the role of a Supreme Court that would "interpret and ensure proper application of the laws written by the legislative branch and enforced by the executive branch."

No matter the claims we've heard in recent weeks from others in American government, the justices of the Supreme Court know their job and understand limited power. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said, "Sometimes it is easy ... to enhance your prestige by not exercising your responsibility, but that's not been the tradition of the court." That exercise of responsibility is what I witnessed firsthand.

The justices clearly have fundamental differences in how they see the role of government and where they must draw the line with provisions such as the commerce clause, but they also recognize the difference between politics and principles.

They ask questions to get at the truth as they see it, not to further political aspirations or to support a particular party. The justices struggle with an unfamiliar role as pseudo-legislators, at which they balk repeatedly.

The late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist once cautioned against frustration and politicizing Supreme Court decisions, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did in 1937 when he threatened to pack the court with new appointees after an unfavorable outcome and ended up losing a congressional majority as a result.

So, as we wait for the justices' decision on health care, let's talk more about why we have a U.S. Supreme Court in the first place and worry less about popularity contests and predictions. As Yankee great Yogi Berra put it, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

Scott Pruitt is attorney general of Oklahoma and chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association.