Every four years we Americans come face to face with an embarrassing truth: We don't know anything about our own Supreme Court. During presidential elections, attention is suddenly focused on the nine caped justices, dressed one and all like the Marquis de Sade. Conversations delve into which justices are near death or sprouting new signs of illness, and suddenly the nation is alerted to the omnipresent importance of the judicial branch of government. Replacing a Supreme Court Justice is a serious matter for a President: the new recruit can easily change the tone and timbre of our laws as we know and misunderstand them.
I live in Washington DC, which means that almost everyone I meet is a lawyer. Most are regular lawyers, but some are the constitutional kind. These are peculiar people, overly-brained and capable of vast thought and a misguided assumption that the rest of us understand what they are talking about.
At a dinner last week, the conversation turned to the Supreme Court. The Court convened a new session on October 1; they will deliberate huge issues like the Voting Rights Act, the Defense of Marriage Act and Affirmative Action. I kept very quiet during this conversation. I've learned that less oration on my part is better, especially when dining with constitutional lawyers.
My husband, a consumer lawyer who leads a movement called Consumers Count, is outraged by a particular and recent Supreme Court decision curtailing the rights of citizens to seek a fair trial. "Everyone knows about the seventh amendment," he said. "As soon as people realize that their rights have been obliterated, they'll sit up and take note."
"Really? Everyone knows the seventh amendment?"I challenged him without divulging too much. I knew I had a copy of the Constitution in the house, leftover from a high school project where one of my sons had to make a diorama of the branches of government. I found it wedged in the bookshelf, shouldered between Thin Thighs in Thirty Days and Haikus for Jews: For You, a Little Wisdom.
"Of course they do. People know, at a minimum, the Bill of Rights, which includes the first ten amendments." He sounded absolutely certain. But this is a man whose leisure reading includes the Supreme Court Insider.
Is that true? Do most of us know -- at least -- the Bill of Rights? I decided to do a test. For the next few days, I asked around: what do you know about the Bill of Rights?
"That's the part of the Constitution that has the amendments," a friend said with great confidence. Then, she explained: "I had a crush on my middle school social studies teacher, so I stayed after class a lot and listened to him talk about the Constitution." I was impressed until she added: "I memorized all the amendments, all twenty of them!" (There are twenty-seven. I looked it up.)
A heated discussion at lunch with two closer friends revealed that, for some, the information we've gleaned from historical documents and well-known sources can easily become muddled. "I think there are about a dozen amendments," my oldest friend, a pediatrician, said with a mouth full of chicken salad.
Our marketing manager buddy sat across the table. He shook his head while stealing one of her french fries. "Nope," he corrected her quickly. "There are ten amendments in the Bill of Rights."
The pediatrician pressed her lips and scowled. "You're getting them mixed up. Ten is the number of commandments." To which he responded, "You may be right."
My cousin was equally perplexed. "Let's see," she said with a voice obviously used to buy time. She had no idea, I knew that from the get-go. "Does it have anything to do with the Louisiana Purchase?"
A coworker mentioned the Continental Congress. Another suggested a possible connection with the Federalist Papers.
By far, the best response came from a man who asked: "Does it have something to do with the Prime Directive?"
I think it's pretty clear that, as a group, we are woefully disconnected with the highest legal body in the land. If it weren't for the scandal surrounding Clarence Thomas, most of us would have no idea who sits in those chairs. I, for one, am a big fan of Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court. She retired in 2006 to care for her husband who had Alzheimer's disease. Thanks to several heart-wrenching articles and interviews in the press, I know more about the status of her marriage than I do about her tenure on the Court.
For the record: The first ten amendments of the US Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. There are, at this moment, twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution.