Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Tyranny of the Majority?

As most people are probably aware, the California Supreme Court recently ruled that the California state constitution's equal protection clause means that the state must allow gay marriages. This runs against a 2000 ballot measure, Proposition 22 which defined marriage as being between one man and one woman, that passed by a ~20% margin. Now gay marriage opponents have gathered the signatures to put a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot this fall to try and trump the Supreme Court's decision.

I'm not interested in debating gay marriage here - that's way too sticky of a situation for this blog. What I am interested in is the idea that a court can overturn the public will. In this case the people of the state of California clearly expressed their will and the court then threw it out. Is the duty of our courts to prevent "tyranny of the majority" or should it uphold the clear will of the majority?

Personally, I'm not sure I know exactly which side I fall on in the debate over the purpose of the judicial system. I find laughable the idea that a small group of judges' opinions should over-rule the opinions of millions of people. We (or they) the people are the source of the government's power and we the people should take precedence over an elite group of legal scholars.

At the same time I also recognize that our founding fathers were wise not to make our entire government a direct democracy. Sometimes the public is simply not in the best position to make complex decisions. We in science see that all the time. Yesterday, for example, I read a newspaper article on hydrogen fuel cells. Apparently they are our country's future source of energy. Heaven help us if our country were run by opinion polls.

So what do you think? Should courts respect the will of the people or should they protect us from a tyranny of the majority?

P.S. Please remember, this post is not about gay marriage - this is about the relationship between a court (or any government body or official) and the people from whom that government derives its power.


  1. I don't want to get into a debate over gay marriage either.

    As far as I can tell, a supreme court's job is to rule whether something is constitutional or not.

    This is why the symbol is a lady wearing a blindfold. It doesn't matter what the will of the people is. All that matters is if it is constitutional or not.

    If everyone wants something but it is unconstitutional tough.

    However, if the majority can amend the constitution things change.

    An interesting note about this decision. The judges on purpose made no reference to the Federal Constitution on purpose. This way the decision can't be appealed to the supreme court.

    On one hand you may find the above a trick. On the other hand the California Supreme court needs to only speak for California's constitution anyways.

    Like always with you Nick, good post.

  2. "Should courts respect the will of the people or should they protect us from a tyranny of the majority?"

    At the risk of repeating myself, supreme courts should declare things constitutional or unconstitutional not worry about the public will.

    This is why supreme court justices are not elected. They should be blind to everything except what the law says.

    If the people feel strongly enough about something they should amend the constitution.

  3. I think you make a good point about the specific legal purpose of a court, but let me play devil's advocate here.

    Courts are extensions of the government which ultimately derives its power from the will of the people. And in this case, the people clearly stated their will, so isn't the court in essence subverting democracy?

  4. "so isn't the court in essence subverting democracy?"

    I think the supreme court is the anchor protecting democracy from itself.

    You know and I know, *sometimes* the majority wants something bad. Often though for only a brief period.

    To me the one thing the forefather's got right is the idea that the "fundamental rules" of society should be hard to change. Those are the ones found in the constitution.

    The fundamental rules provide a stability and structure needed for keeping a democracy in control.

    Should the fundamental rules ever change? Of course, remember what our own constitution says about slaves?

    However, most of the fundamental rules are such important cornerstones that if they change, they need to be changed by a society that is nearly unanimous that the changes need to be made.

    The court, again, is an anchor protecting democracy from itself.


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