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In the coming few days, the Supreme Court will issue a long-awaited ruling.
The 9 justices will issue their opinions on whether President Obama’s sweeping health care law should stand.
It will be a major moment.
Not just for this nation.
Not just for the personal freedom of Americans to make health care choices.
It will also be a major moment for the president.
He will have an opportunity to say whether he respects the court’s decision… or not.
He will be able to show respect to a co-equal branch of government… or not.
He will have the ability to tell the American people what comes next… or not.
So far, the president has failed this test.
He has verbally attacked the Supreme Court for past decisions.
He has mischaracterized their rulings.
He has distorted… and fumed… and fulminated.
But he has not shown leadership.
So I have decided to help out President Obama.
I have decided to help out his speechwriters.
I did some research.
As it turns out, President Obama is not the first president who has struggled with the Supreme Court.
There were others.
Thomas Jefferson, angered over judicial review of laws passed by Congress, wrote “my construction of the Constitution is very different” from the court’s.
In 1974, Richard Nixon, with his presidency in effect destroyed by a Supreme Court ruling on the Watergate tapes, said merely: “While I am, of course, disappointed in the result, I respect and accept the Court's decision.” He resigned a few weeks later.
There is a great tradition of presidents petitioning the court… and an even greater tradition of them losing. This is not a dictatorship. The president must abide the decisions of someone else.
But even with this tension, presidents of both parties have been able to speak their mind with respect…
They have been able to make their case without stepping on the dignity of the justices.
Here’s Ronald Reagan, in 1983, after a Supreme Court ruling that struck down state’s efforts to limit abortion-on-demand: “I join millions of Americans expressing profound disappointment at the decisions announced by the Supreme Court.”
He continued: “The issue of abortion must be resolved by our democratic process. Once again I call on the Congress to make its voice heard against abortion on demand and to restore legal protections for the unborn whether by statute or constitutional amendment.”
Note the tone. Serious. Upfront. Unyielding. But respectful.
Here is Bill Clinton in 1998, when the court ruled against the line item veto. “I am deeply disappointed with today's Supreme Court decision. The decision is a defeat for all Americans—it deprives the President of a valuable tool for eliminating waste in the Federal budget and for enlivening the public debate over how to make the best use of public funds.”
Here is Clinton again in 2000, when the court struck down a portion of a law. “We plan to study the Supreme Court's decision.”
Disappointed. Deeply disappointed. We plan to study the decision. This issue must be resolved by our democratic process.
These are the words of presidents who understood that the Supreme Court is not a rubber stamp body. These men knew what democracy means… what checks-and-balances mean.
They didn’t like the result. They didn’t go away quietly. But they understood.
And here is one thing they did not do: They did not try to undermine the Court… they did not lecture the Court… they did not misrepresent the issues or the ruling.
In short, they didn’t do what Barack Obama has already done.
Even FDR, who did the most to degrade the court, by attacking it as “nine old men”… who tried to pack it with his own favorites… who spent entire press conferences fulminating at the rulings… who compared the court to a horse that would not do the work of the farm….
Even FDR understood that the Supreme Court has an important role to play in our democracy. A vital role.
Here is what he says: “In some ways it may be the best thing that has happened to this country for a long time that such a decision has come from the Supreme Court, because it clarifies the issue.”
“Clarifies the issue.”
How true it is. Sometimes, the democratic process is messy. Sometimes, people would like to forget about the challenges of writing a law… making sure it has support… making sure its Constitutional.
But the Court doesn’t forget. The Court doesn’t gloss over the little things. The Court “clarifies the issue.”
It would be good for President Obama to heed these words.
And to show the nation that he not only can lecture. But that he can learn as well.