Generational change performs an important role in American society by implementing change on social and political issues in the continuously evolving United States. The best example of this is the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the end of segregation in America. As new generations of young people entered college after World War II, many questioned the entrenched ideology of white racial superiority and the political solution provided by state sponsored segregation, and horrified at what they found, united to protest for change. An eclectic mixture of ethnicities joined to overturn centuries of morally corrupt white dominance, forcing the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government to follow suit. The following year, the Voting Rights Act halted state sponsored efforts to deny African Americans a place at the polls, and the United States finally achieved its promise of a democratic nation.
The effects of generational change on the individual’s political and social life in 2014 abound as more states act to provide support for same-sex marriage and the legalization of cannabis sales and use. As young Americans enter the political fray at the state and national level, their attitudes reflect a greater tolerance for issues conservatives find intolerable. Both of these movements find overwhelming support at the local level, but national politics are catching up as generational change makes its way into the legislative and executive branches of government. For the most part, generational change is positive and continues to move the country in a progressive direction, but the single branch of government resistant to generational change is the judicial branch.
Because Supreme Court justices serve lifetime appointments, generational change has little or no effect on its members, as the average age of appointees is 53. The United States is governed by a set of laws overseen by a nine-member panel of individuals whose attitudes on social and political issues remain mired in the past. Reinforcing the tendency towards conservative values, justices do their work in private, without any accountability to the people forced to live under their laws. The concern that justices would lose touch with the will of the people was very real for the original framers of the Constitution, and that is why justices were mandated to ride circuit in the region they represented.
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In The Great Decision, Cliff Sloan and David McKean described the legislators’ reasoning for insisting that Supreme Court Justices actively participate in circuit riding as mandated in the Judiciary Act of 1802. “Republicans claimed that it was more desirable to have Supreme Court justices riding circuit court instead of simply huddling together in Washington two times a year where they were isolated from the American people; the justices should be more in touch with local law and custom” (Sloan, 102). William Howard Taft, the only person to serve as both President and Chief Justice, ended circuit riding when he joined the Supreme Court in 1921. The mandate by the nation’s founding fathers to circuit ride must have seemed overly taxing for a man who was so morbidly obese that he required a specially made bathtub that could fit two full-grown men.
In addition to circuit riding, rule changes governing the Supreme Court have further reduced the workload required of the justices, and placed additional barriers between its members and the public. In her book, Out of Order, Sandra Day O’Connor provides an insider’s perspective on the evolution of the Supreme Court’s standard operating procedures. “Today, with no obligation to ride circuit, the Justices enjoy their impressive and comfortable quarters at One First Street. The Court’s role in picking the cases it hears has also changed dramatically…the Court’s docket was inundated with…cases that the Justices were…obliged to decide on the merits, regardless of their importance or the urgency for review. Today, the court uses its discretion to select a small subset of cases from approximately eight thousand appeals…oral advocates are strictly limited to thirty minutes of argument time…and advocates are lucky if they get more than two unbroken sentences out of their mouths before the Justices interject with difficult questions”(O’Connor, 9-10). While O’Connor takes pride in the Court’s evolution, the streamlining of justice allows it to choose the cases Justices will hear, and ignore cases focused on difficult political or social issues.
No longer beholden by a congressional mandate in the cases it must review, the Court dodges attempts to address the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, an issue the conservative Justices whose social views are colored by Abrahamic religion stonewall by deferring to state’s rights. As the US population experiences generational change, its opinion on same-sex relationships and the people who are in them has become more accepting, but the conservative S.C. Justices remain mired in a pre-gay world where homosexuality was practiced in the closet. The LGBT movement rightly compares itself to the Civil Rights movement because in both issues the Court created two levels of citizenship, state and federal. In the end, a legislative amendment defining the rights of the LGBT individual will be the sole solution to the issue. For the portion of the population between ages 18-40, the normality of homosexuality in everyday life contradicts the strident and strict morality of disgust voiced by conservatives that results in the social disconnect labeled ‘out of touch.’
In the past, government’s resistance to social progress resulted in violent riots that shut down many of the nation’s major cities. Police methods of using fire hoses, dogs, clubs, and officers on horseback to quell opposition resulted in a backlash of greater defiance that the government could not ignore. Passage of the Civil Rights Act was a social victory for the American people, while the violence that accompanied it shook the judicial system to its core. In response, the contemporary justice structure is more comfortable protecting the amorality of corporations over Americans on matters including freedom of speech, campaign finance, and religious exemptions to federally mandated employment insurance coverage. More concerning, the militarization of police forces nationwide means future demonstrations will be met with more sophisticated weapons. Replacing the fire hoses and clubs with rubber and beanbag projectiles, electrically charged probes, pepper spray, and low-frequency sound cannons ensures future protestors will pay a higher price for dissent.
The architects of American democratic government provided the US Constitution as a blueprint that incorporated tools for compromise and change in a country still in its infancy. Peter Irons contended in A People’s History of the Supreme Court that slavery was the central issue for delegates at the 1787 convention, with the term “wealth” becoming “a euphemism in convention debates for slaves” (Irons, 29). It boggles the contemporary imagination that an ideology of white superiority, a social concept, took precedence over jurisprudence. As gatekeepers to the laws governing the United States, the S.C. Justices’ indifference to unjust edicts actively impeded the social and economic development of black Americans for over two centuries by allowing slavery and separate-but-equal laws to proliferate. The tumultuous decades in post-war America leveled the political and social playing field, but only after young Americans joined the fight. With the far-reaching power to shape American policies, is it a practical notion to continue providing Justices lifetime appointments, and what opportunities exist to guide the institution toward generation change?
The most promising solutions propose reinstating circuit riding duties, allowing congress to mandate a limited number of cases for Supreme Court review, and replacing lifetime appointments with term limits. First, a return to circuit riding can silence the critics who accuse the Justices of being out of touch with the average American’s problems. By participating in the circuit court’s most pressing cases, its judicial overseer gains a clearer insight into the challenges confronting the region’s population. Next, allowing congress to mandate a limited number of cases for Supreme Court review would require the Justices to engage with the laws that it contemporarily avoids. Instead of just choosing the cases it will hear, as O’Connor gushes over, it will become more responsive to current conflicts as represented by Congress, and the people’s representatives. Finally, replacing lifetime terms with limits of ten years will provide the Supreme Court Justices with a more democratic system that allows more judges to participate in the highest levels of court. Becoming a Justice at the average age of 53, the improvements in current health and medical practices allow lifetime appointments to stretch into three decades of shaping the United States justice system. Alternatively, term limits discourage a handful of Justices from dominating the writing of United States laws for over three decades, and grants a louder voice to a large eclectic judicial pool of possible candidates.
The gentrification of the Supreme Court has resulted in a branch of government that interprets the Constitution through the eyes of a corporate few, reinterpreting long-standing precedents in novel ways that elevate corporate personhood over the nation’s masses. It is an ossified view that only an old, white, wealthy, entitled man can entertain, but injecting new blood into the Supreme Court introduces generational change on this staid institution. Now that the Supreme Court has broken the glass ceiling between religion and government with its Hobby Lobby ruling, opportunities abound for the religious right to press for even more rights that oppress the majority, but fit perfectly with the worldview of a handful of Justices. The time for change is at hand, before the Supreme Court turns the Constitution into what Thomas Jefferson warned, “a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist and shape into any form they please” (Burns, 40).