In John Roberts’s World, Only the Court Can Be Trusted

With the exception of himself and a few friends in black robes, the chief justice seems to view the federal government as a bunch of power-hungry hacks.
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Steve Petteway/Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

“Part of what we are trying to do here is to maintain a multi-religious society in a peaceful and harmonious way,” Justice Elena Kagan lamented from the bench last week. “And every time the Court gets involved in things like this, it seems to make the problem worse rather than better.”

Kagan seemed to be speaking for most of her colleagues as the Court grappled with the issue of whether a Town Council can subject those attending its annual meetings to prayer—almost always explicitly Christian—by selected area clergy.  It was the Court’s latest foray into the question of when government can allow, or mandate, official prayer at public events or in public institutions. The Justices seemed weary of the issue and close to despair. 

This is a tale of two courts: on the one hand, a chastened, hesitant court confronting, in a case called Town of Greece v. Galloway, an issue it has been stuck with for half a century, and on the other, a bold, almost playful court, in Bond v. United States, preparing to inject its authority into a place it has previously stayed clear of.

The public-prayer question has bedeviled the Court since 1962, when the justices first invalidated a state-composed school prayer mandated by New York State.  Ever since that decision, the Court has had to parse when prayer is okay and when it isn’t: If not in class, what about before high school football games? At graduation? Can a state legislature hold prayers before its sessions? Can a county board post the Ten Commandments in its courthouse? Can a state put a stone monument of the Ten Commandments on its capitol grounds? What about a Town Council (the issue in Town of Greece)? Should the government instruct clergy on “nonsectarian prayer,” whatever that might be? Would it be better if the prayers didn’t mention Jesus Christ? Would it be okay for them to mention the “Heavenly Father” or “God Almighty,” as long as they don’t mention “Jesus” or “Christ”? What about “Allah,” if there’s no mention of “Muhammad”? 

Based on the weary tone of the questions in Galloway, the justices realize that they are stuck on a kind of Mobius strip, an endless loop in which each new answer raises new questions. The problem of majority religion imposing itself on dissenters is a real one, but the judges seem to wish they had stayed out of it altogether, and I think that feeling can be forgiven.

Contrast those question with the tone a day before, when the Court majority seemed to be preparing to tackle a question the Court has avoided: When may the president, with the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate, make a treaty in a way that the states don’t like? And when can the two Houses of Congress, along with the president, make a law to enforce a treaty?

The Court has stayed away from this question wisely, for at least three reasons.  First, the Treaty Power is an enumerated power, spelled out in Article II, § 2, and it resides entirely with the executive and the Senate. Second, Article VI § 2 states that “treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States” are “the supreme law of the land.” Third, the historical materials suggest fairly urgently that the Founders wanted the states to keep their hands off treaties and foreign policy.

Nonetheless, the Court’s conservative majority seemed to be slavering to bring this sovereign power under its control. Paul Clement, representing the petitioner, suggested that the Court should simply invalidate treaty legislation if  the Federal statute exercises “a general police power.” (He later amended this slightly, conceding that Congress could outlaw sarin gas, because sarin is “warlike.”) “Police power,” of course, is a term that has no clear meaning.  It appears nowhere in the Constitution, and there is nothing in the text that says Congress can’t exercise whatever-it-is when carrying out an enumerated power. The “police power” test would be about as useful as “coercion,” or “nonsectarian,” or “endorsement” are in the Establishment Clause area.

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore, and is the author of American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution.

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