On June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its final rulings of the session and, in particular, issued an 5-4 opinion to uphold the contentious medical insurance law affectionately known as Obamacare (the signature health care legislation passed under President Obama’s term in office.) As prognosticators and pundits proffered perilous predictions of the possible passage or probable pass by the High Court on the constitutionality therein, to the average citizen the split-decision given by the nine justices seemed as contorted as the legislation itself. I am reminded that there is always a price to pay for making a difficult decision. If history is any indicator where the U.S. Supreme Court is concerned, the price paid is unusually high in cases that are deemed “landmark decisions” by the press.
Looking back on several landmark (case law) decisions over my lifetime, it is not difficult to discern the negative unintended consequences of many Supreme Court rulings on American society long term. This is not to say that all Supreme Court decisions are negative. However, in a day and age where our citizenry has become less inclined to find interest in matters of governance and the rule of law, the impact of such Supreme Court decisions is generally accepted with little more than a shrugging of shoulders.
It is the proverbial sore tooth of American jurisprudence. Like a shot of Novocaine, which numbs the area where the source of greatest hurt is felt, Americans generally seem more interested in ending the pain quickly than concerning themselves with the root problem. Once the numbness wears off, most often we find a gaping hole. We are expected to applaud and reward the handiwork of those in government who administered the shot and knocked us out for awhile. Meanwhile we struggle to live with the disfiguring gap.
Nine people may know a great deal about the law. But nine justices are neither all-seeing, nor all-knowing and they can be wrong individually and collectively. The high court is well known for creating law rather than ruling merely on its merits. For example, in the 1966 ruling known as the Miranda decision, the Court found it necessary to require all law enforcement officers to educate criminal suspects during in-custody interrogations regarding their Constitutional rights. Rather than address the over-zealous conduct of the few officers involved in the original incident (by simply overturning the conviction), the Court took it upon itself to address the entire law enforcement profession and impose sanctions in an attempt to address a perceived injustice. In other words, if a few cops in Arizona were taking unfair advantage of an arrestee in custody during an interrogation, then ALL cops must have been doing so everywhere!
Who benefited from the Miranda ruling? Forty-plus years after that court decision, criminal suspects generally still talk to the police even after being re-educated about their rights concerning self-incrimination and legal defense. Most crooks have a story to tell and want to set the record straight (in their crooked sort of way.) The only inconvenience for peace officers is the interruption of a talkative suspect by enticing them to shut up via Miranda warning. On the other hand, defense lawyers have benefited most from the ruling, first by the silence of their clients, second by absence of confessions to the police, and third by confounding court proceedings with challenges to confessions by invoking police impropriety via Miranda’s assertions. Doubt is what criminal defense is all about.
From a law enforcement perspective, there are more often two groups negatively affected by Supreme Court rulings in criminal law cases: The police and law-abiding citizens. When I started in police work in 1979, the police academy instructed me in the laws governing police conduct, search and seizure, affecting arrests, use of force and deadly force, report writing, court room testimony, and investigating crimes. Every year the rules changed as the result of a criminal defendant somewhere in America challenging his or her arrest and conviction before the court on appeal. Most cases only made it as far as appellate court before becoming case law, some stopped at the State Supreme Court and became law, and a rare few were ruled upon by the U.S. Supremes. In most instances, the court rulings imposed more restrictions on what police could do to affect arrests, obtain evidence, and interrogate suspects. Then restrictions were imposed when the spread of AIDS became politicized. Then lawsuits over use of tasers and injuries resulting from police pursuits further restricted police behavior. Lawyers lacked no work and criminals had no such restrictions issued by the courts. As a result, law-abiding citizens became easier prey to unfettered opportunists who never seemed to stay locked up for long.
By the time I retired in 2009, I saw a paradigm shift in my Department as well as the law enforcement profession. Enforcement of the law, while still a priority, was superseded by the fear of lawsuit. Policies and procedures seemed geared toward lawsuit avoidance rather than officer safety in the illusory matter of Fallout v. Unintended Consequences. My Department required officers to carry digital recorders and use them on all contacts or suffer disciplinary action. So in addition to confronting potentially dangerous persons in the field, officers had the added element of having to remember to activate a tape recorder. Why were the recorders necessary (as well as helpful)? Citizen complaints were the catalyst, many of them accusing officers of racism. Internal affairs investigations were quite numerous and time intensive until the advent of tape recorders. What did internal investigators hear on those tapes most of the time? Officers doing their jobs within policy. What did the tapes also prove? The majority of the complainants were lying about police misconduct. I can only deduce that those lying complainants saw the opportunity to potentially gain a cash settlement from the City for making such accusations. Shame on them.
One need only examine what American society looked like fifty years ago under the law compared to how it presently appears in order to appreciate the impact of unintended consequences from Supreme Court rulings. Why is there now a need for victim’s advocacy in our criminal justice system, if not for the overreach of the High Court whose decisions have afforded criminal defendants superiority through taxpayer-funded legal advocacy for criminal misconduct? Why must legislators continuously go back to the drawing board (as in the case of Three Strikes law) to ramp up penalties for criminal offenses? Why must voters repeatedly go back to the ballot box to demand capital punishment be carried out, only to see condemned prisoners languishing on Death Row for decades? For all the good intentions that landmark Supreme Court rulings may hold in the present, there is an undeniable paper trail of really mean means and unjustifiably unjust ends that were judged constitutionally sound by nine people garbed in black.
I am glad that there is an ultimate justice beyond human interference and opinion. God is just and has promised to ultimately rule on the injustices suffered here on Earth. In fact, in the matter of sin, God already has rendered a decision in his landmark ruling in Jesus v. Sin. God’s decisions can never be split or torn between majority or dissenting opinions. God loves me, God saved me through His Son, Jesus and the intended consequence of that decision, for my sake, is eternal life.
While the Supreme Court may be fallible in its rulings, God is not! And no matter what the negative fallout from a high court ruling may bring, I know that I need not fear, for God is with me. My future with God supersedes whatever may come in this world or from nine robed lawyers.
Are you still in fear for your future? I invite you to take stock in God. Have a little faith.
It never hurts to pray. In fact, it seems quite appropriate, right about now.
(copyright 2012, Gregory Allen Doyle)