Why Supreme Court Rulings are Fundamental to American Democracy

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By Dr. Darrel Stufflebeam, Superintendent

Rock Creek Schools

In 1787 Philadelphia, for the first time in world history, national representatives met to determine Imagehow their nation should govern itself.  The people of a modern nation would, for the first time, be ruled by their own laws rather than by a monarch or dictator.  This new Rule of Law would become the fundamental ingredient of democracy on Earth.

During that Constitutional Convention, our Founding Fathers participated in many heated debates, one of which was in regard to whom had the final authority to interpret the constitution, which they were in the process of creating.  When those meetings were finished, a series of newspaper articles, eventually known as the Federalist Papers, explained the thinking behind the various aspects of the U.S. Constitution.  The primary author of those articles was Alexander Hamilton.

Federalist No. 78, written by Hamilton, argued that the courts have the duty to determine whether legislative acts are constitutional.  He said, “Where the will of the legislature, declared in its statutes, stands in opposition to that of the people, declared in the Constitution, the judges ought to be governed by the latter rather than the former.”  Other Federalist articles explained why judges should not be elected or be subject to the political whims of the other two branches of government.

Since then, the power of federal and state Supreme Courts to interpret their respective constitutions has become an essential part of American democracy and a cornerstone of American law.  There will continue to be vehement disagreements about how Supreme Courts interpret the Constitution but, legally, there is no longer a debate regarding their authority to do so. 

Chief executives (Presidents and Governors) and legislators swear an oath to uphold the constitution.  Legally, Supreme Court decisions determine what the constitution means.  Therefore, their oaths include obeying Supreme Court decisions.  Since the Rule of Law is the most fundamental aspect of democracy, this legal argument must be the final argument.

In his recent State of the State address, Governor Brownback said, “Too many decisions are made by unaccountable, opaque institutions.  Elected officials are sometimes complicit in this transference of power, because it removes them from accountability.  So let’s be clear.  On the number one item in the state budget – education – the Constitution empowers the Legislature—the people’s representatives—to fund our schools.  This is the people’s business, done by the people’s house through the wonderfully untidy– but open for all to see — business of appropriations.  Let us resolve that our schools remain open and are not closed by the courts or anyone else.”  

First of all, the Constitution does not merely “empower” the legislature to fund schools.  It requires them to suitably do so.  Secondly, since it is a constitutional requirement, the Kansas Supreme Court has the power and duty to decide whether or not the legislature is in violation of the constitution.  Finally, it is certainly possible that the Kansas Supreme Court will order more funding for schools and, failing that, could order schools closed for being unconstitutionally funded.  If that happens, however, the fault will lie not with the Kansas Supreme Court but with those who flaunt the Rule of Law.

It is true that the Governor and legislature, along with a vote of the people of Kansas, could change the Kansas Constitution.  Unless or until that occurs, however, the Rule of Law, American democracy, and our legislator’s oaths of office require that the Kansas Supreme Court’s ruling be obeyed.

On a related topic, you have probably heard recent political advertisements using various statistics to argue that Kansas public schools have more money than ever and are spending it inefficiently. Those statistics are invariably partial truths.  As I have done in the past, I could refute those statistics with my own. 

Instead, I will state the simple truth that Kansas public schools have less money to operate schools and educate kids today than they have had in decades.  In fact, they have less operating funds now than they did when the Kansas Supreme Court ruled nine years ago that, according to the legislature’s own studies, Kansas public schools were grossly underfunded. 

Here is one last simple truth—also absent of statistics (skewed or otherwise):  Unless the Kansas Supreme Court rules that Kansas public schools are underfunded and our other two branches of government choose to obey their oaths and that ruling, our school district will continue to be forced to choose between raising local property taxes and lowering educational services.  Since most school districts are already at their local property tax maximum, they no longer have that choice.  Eventually, unless funding is increased, we will have no choice as well.