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A Supreme Court Primer

[This is a guest post from Marc S. Berman, who has written numerous articles and opinion pieces on politics, law, and current events.]

America’s political divide now envelops the United States Supreme Court. For example, when the Court decides that the billionaire Koch brothers can buy elections, its ruling is perceived as conservative. Democrats stop smoking weed long enough to get furious. MSNBC’s ratings even crack the top 300 for a day.

But when the Court, say, rules that “required health insurance” is just another name for “tax”, and therefore Obamacare is legal, its decision is viewed as liberal. Republicans smash their martini glasses with five-irons. On the radio, Rush spends an entire show mocking the judiciary. (Interestingly, judge-bashing really sells the virility treatments advertised on Limbaugh’s program. Otherwise, that stuff only moves when Rush lambastes Hillary, which is the conventional way of arousing a dittohead.)

Some of the Supreme Court’s upcoming decisions will be controversial. Now’s a good time to remind ourselves that, in reality, judges are impartial. They decide cases solely based on the law. Their political views play no part in how they rule.

So what has caused Americans’ mistaken belief that Supreme Court decisions are political? It all comes down to vocabulary.

Unlike the decisions of Judge Milian on the People’s Court, high court rulings are written. And they are full of obscure legal verbiage.

Americans don’t understand judicial gobbledygook. Consequently, we don’t read Supreme Court decisions. Instead, we rely on experts to interpret the rulings for us. Because these “experts” have political agendas, they try to convince us that the Court takes sides in political controversies. In the trade, this is known as “freaking the freaking lazy base out so they’ll freaking show up at the freaking polls.”

Americans need to learn the truth about our judiciary. This means that we need to start reading Supreme Court decisions for ourselves. I am providing definitions for all key legal terms below. Know these words, and you’ll be able to understand any ruling:

  • Habeas Corpus: Latin for “why has this guy been in Baltimore city jail for 12 years on a parking ticket?”
  • Indictment: A formal charge against any Democratic senator who opposes Obama’s policy on Iran and Cuba.
  • Stop and Frisk: The security check that all Court spectators endure before being seated.
  • Hourly Rate: The amount a Supreme Court lawyer charges for 25 minutes of work.
  • Justice (of the Supreme Court): A judge on the Court. To get appointed, a justice must be a paid-up member of the Harvard, Yale, or Columbia Alumni Societies, be friends with a senator, and belong to an ethnic group that voted for the president in the last election.
  • Chief Justice: The justice who sits front-row-center for Court photographs.
  • Constitution: A Rorschach (ink blot) test the justices use to decide cases. Each justice sees what he or she wants to.
  • Law Clerk: An Ivy League law school graduate. Works for a justice. Must be expert in medieval punctuation patterns.
  • Opinion: A written discussion of a case. Credited to a justice. Ghost-written by law clerks.
  • Majority Opinion: An opinion by the justices who the winning party thinks are smart.
  • Minority Opinion: An opinion by the justices who the losing party thinks are smart.
  • Concurrence: An opinion by a justice who couldn’t make up their mind.
  • Dissent: An opinion by a justice who offended boss Justice Anthony Kennedy.
  • Recess: A 10 minute break during a court session. A recess is called when Justice Ginsberg, who just turned 82, wakes up from her siesta. The recess allows her to review the other justices’ notes.
  • Reverse: What the Court does to a ruling in favor of a litigant stupid enough to hire an attorney the justices never met at a D.C. cocktail party.
  • Affirm: A group of lawyers who share a conference room.
  • Solicitor General: The lawyer who represents the federal government before the Court. She defends all laws that the president likes.

Now that you know the lingo, find a Court ruling you hate, and read it. It will be obvious that politics played no part. And the next time you hear some party operative whining that the Court is too political, you’ll know who not to freaking vote for.



  1. Arthanyel wrote:

    Well written article, but the basis of the argument is in error and therefore the entire thesis must be discarded.

    Supreme Court judges are NOT impartial. Their politicized verbiage is NOT all obscure legal mumbo jumbo. Anyone that listens to, and reads opinions from, Scalia vs. Ginsburg (or pick any other conservative and liberal pair on the court)can see CLEARLY that there is a political opinion bias on the court. As can anyone that wonders how corporations got to be people, or billionaires were allowed to buy our elections.

    Monday, June 1, 2015 at 7:36 am | Permalink
  2. ThatGuy wrote:

    Can’t add much more than a firm agreement of what Arthanyel is saying. Obviously the bit is tongue in cheek but I think it could have gotten to the jokes without making the claim that any of these judges are actually impartial. Scalia taking up Tea Party language during the ACA mandate case and Ginsburg officiating gay weddings should be proof positive that they go to the bench with pretty telling biases.

    Monday, June 1, 2015 at 4:09 pm | Permalink
  3. Mike wrote:

    I think Berman does a great disservice to the truth claiming that the court is apolitical.

    They are all political – sometimes swinging to the left and sometimes swinging to the right.

    This court, with its conservative majority, is the most political I’ve seen in over 40 years of watching the SCOTUS.

    Corporations as people with religious views? Please!

    Monday, June 1, 2015 at 9:48 pm | Permalink
  4. Iron Knee wrote:

    OMG, did you guys fall for this?

    Monday, June 1, 2015 at 10:03 pm | Permalink
  5. ralph wrote:

    Clever, biting satire, if a bit on the verbose side, but does the job exposing the hypocrisy and juris-im-prudence of SCOTUS, besides the shallowness of the news media and average citizen. Those definitions are funny because they have a grain of truth, like all lawyer and politician jokes. I like the one on The Constitution, you can also say the same about The Bible.

    Maybe if Republicans would start smoking a little weed instead of just blowing smoke, and Democrats would stop obsessing over victimization and political correctness (30+ gender definitions on Facebook, really?), they could come off their respective high horses to have some real dialogue for a change and reach consensus now and then. Yeah, like that’s ever going to happen…

    There’s simply too much money driving the process, whether it’s the Clinton’s speaking fees, Super PACs, pay-to-play in state and municipal houses, etc. Elections, like politicians generally, are now bought and sold by a handful of billionaires. Money is power and, like absolute power, corrupts absolutely. Our latest textbook example from the wide world of sports – FIFA.

    Tuesday, June 2, 2015 at 8:00 am | Permalink
  6. paradoctor wrote:

    Money decays, and absolute money decays absolutely.

    Wednesday, June 3, 2015 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

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