Americans, for the most part, grow up believing in the Supreme Court, the institution, and what it is supposed to stand for. Children are taught in school to have a kind of unconscious reverence for the third branch of government.
On my first visit to Washington DC it was the only building I desperately wanted to see. I liked to picture former justice Thurgood Marshall walking across the marble platform, past the crystal blue fountains, up the steep steps on his way to argue Brown versus Board of Education. It was a case he won, legally ending racial segregation in this country.
That is the most common example of the power of the Supreme Court, seen by some as the last hope for just but unpopular causes the only institution in Washington that sits above the fray of public opinion and party politics. The majority of Americans no longer believe that.
A recent poll showed 59 per cent of those asked believe the justices rule mostly based on politics.
In cases that involve human rights, the Supreme Court has often been on the wrong side of history.
In 1857, the well-known Dred Scott case allowed slavery, and a justice wrote that “African Americans are not and can never be citizens of the US.” In 1918, an attempt to stop children from working in factories was thrown out by the court.
When hugely popular President Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected, he threatened to add a new member to the court for every one that was over the age of 70 and had yet to retire, after the court looked ready to rule against the parts of his New Deal that called for a set work week and minimum wage, and offered a safety net to the elderly and disabled.
After that, the New Deal was called constitutional. During World War II, justices approved rounding up Japanese Americans and putting them in internment camps.
On issues that Americans now consider core tenants of the country’s moral code, the justices at first disagreed.
Legal scholars say the justices, for all of the talk of being non-political, are well aware of what is happening outside their gilded walls of marble and velvet trimmings.
The decision they are about to make, on President Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare bill, will likely determine how Americans pay for medical care for decades.
It is a complicated problem, and the president’s 2700-page solution has more provisions than I will recite here.
At its core, it’s a fairly simple premise: If the law is fully implemented, the majority of those fortunate enough to have insurance will pay a bit more, and in exchange 33 million more Americans will be able to afford coverage, and the companies that provide insurance will have to, in essence, play fair.
Is America a country that collectively looks out for the weakest, and most troubled among us, or is it a country where people can and should stand on their own?
That, in my opinion, is the question at the heart of this divisive issue and the next election.
I have no idea what the court will decide when it comes to healthcare.
I do know that there have been times when their decisions, in the light of history, protected what Americans now believe to be part and parcel of what they stand for.
That the government can’t stop them from protesting, that the police cannot do whatever they want, and that, in the end, every American, regardless of gender or race, is created equal.
Is allowing most people access to healthcare another part of what it means to be an American? That’s another little thing, now in the hands of those nine justices.