The Supreme Court decision effectively handing the presidency to George W. Bush reveals the intensely partisan nature of the Court's current majority. The Court, to be sure, has always been political, but rarely as blatantly as today. Nor are there many precedents for Justices trampling on their own previous convictions to reach a predetermined conclusion.
Chief Justice Roger Taney enlisted the aid of President-elect James Buchanan in persuading Northern Justices to join the pro-slavery majority in Dred Scott. Franklin Roosevelt conferred regularly with Justice Louis Brandeis, and Justice Abe Fortas served as a trusted political adviser of Lyndon Johnson. But never has there been a public statement as partisan as Antonin Scalia's when first suspending the recounts that the Court needed to insure "public acceptance" of a Bush presidency.
If there is a silver lining, it is that the last month suggests an agenda for democratic reform. First, the Electoral College should be abolished. The product of an entirely different political era, when the electorate excluded women, nonwhites and propertyless males, the Electoral College was created by a generation fearful of democracy. Its aim was to place the choice of President in the hands of each state's most prominent men, not the voters. It unfairly enhances the power of the least populous states and can produce the current spectacle of a candidate receiving a majority of the votes but losing the election. At the very least, electors should be chosen in proportion to the popular vote in each state.
Second, the Florida fiasco should lead to the reform of voting procedures. As with schools, roads and public services, the wealthiest districts have the best system of voting. The machines used in poor black precincts of Florida, the Miami Herald demonstrated, are so flawed that they are guaranteed to produce a larger number of spoiled or uncounted ballots than in affluent suburban areas.
One can only view with deep cynicism the Court majority's invocation of "equal protection" in rejecting a recount. Added to the Constitution in the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War, this language was intended to protect former slaves from discriminatory state actions and to establish the principle that citizens' rights are uniform throughout the nation. The current Court's concept of equal protection has essentially boiled down to supporting white plaintiffs who claim to be disadvantaged by affirmative action.
Nonetheless, by extending the issue of equal protection to the casting and counting of votes, the Court has opened the door to challenging our highly inequitable system of voting. Claims of unequal treatment by voters in poorer districts are not likely to receive a sympathetic hearing from the current majority. But Bush v. Gore may galvanize demands for genuine equality of participation in the democratic process that legislatures and a future Court may view sympathetically.
Equally difficult to accept at face value is the majority's disdain for the principle of federalism these very Justices have trumpeted for the past several years. Like the South before the Civil War, which believed in states' rights but demanded a fugitive-slave law that overrode the North's judicial and police machinery, today's majority seems to view constitutional principles as remarkably malleable when powerful interests are at stake.
The next time this Court turns down an appeal by a death-row inmate on the grounds that federalism requires it to respect local judicial procedures, the condemned plaintiff may well wonder why his claims do not merit the same consideration as those of the Republican candidate for President.