How do you understand your role on the Supreme Court?

Playing linesman.
  • Transcript


Well remember our cases on the Supreme Court, we decide about 80 or so a year. Probably more than half involve the interpretation of statutes. But a very large number involve the Constitution. And the way that I see it is that the document – and at this level of abstraction most people agree – the document is basically about . . . The first seven articles, they’re basically about creating institutions – Congress, the rest of the institutions – that will enable people to govern themselves. That’s called democracy, but it’s a certain kind of democracy. It’s a democracy that is limited by respect for basic human rights. Because we’ve learned in the 20th Century, if not before, that the majority is conteranized. So there are lists of human rights that are First Amendment, Fourth Amendment. They’re protected. So it’s a democracy that protects fundamental human rights. It assures a certain degree of equality . . . equal respect for people. It divides power vertically between states and federal government among three branches – legislative, executive, judicial – of the federal government. It divides power so no group of people become too powerful. And it insists upon a rule of law. Having stated that, I’ve stated in general terms one, the democracy, and two, the limitations, the boundaries. And what’s our job? I see our job . . . we’re the boundary patrol. We’re the frontiersmen. We’re the guardians of the rails. We have to see that the rest of the process, when it’s brought before us, follows those Constitutional instructions. So we typically say, “Is this law – passed by the Congress or by the state legislature – is this law inside or outside the boundaries?” So I say life is not always easy at the frontier; but nonetheless, the cases are difficult. And our job is, “Which side?” Inside it’s okay. Or outside, it’s off the rails. Recorded on: 7/5/07