The question underpinning all others at Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s confirmation hearings Monday involves the role of the court in our society. Should it be “active” or “passive”? Should it defer to the president or to Congress?
Although such questions can be rephrased in many ways, the answer to them all should be straightforward: The Supreme Court’s most important function is to vindicate the law and, in that way, to commit the United States to the rule of law, rather than of individual human beings. That means holding government — legislative and executive — accountable.
This role matters in ordinary times, but it is crucial when the political pressure on the court is most intense. Consider:
• One of the nation’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the midst of the Civil War. The nation’s chief justice, Roger B. Taney, invalidated the suspension on grounds that only Congress could do that.
• During the Depression, another great president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, fired a member of the Federal Trade Commission. The Supreme Court ruled that Roosevelt acted illegally and in violation of Congress’ will.
• During the Korean War, President Truman seized the country’s steel mills on grounds that the war effort would be jeopardized if the steel industry went on strike. The top court struck down Truman’s action, ruling that the president needed Congress’ authorization and that even the president must obey the law.
• In 2004, the court rejected President Bush’s claim that in the war on terror, enemy combatants may be detained without a hearing. Carefully holding the president to the Constitution’s requirements, it said that the founding document “most assuredly envisions a role for all three branches when individual liberties are at stake.”