As Minnesota’s two U.S. senators weigh the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to be the next associate justice of the Supreme Court, they should keep our system of checks and balances in mind. Perhaps at no time in modern history has the nation run a greater risk that an out-of-control executive could topple the United States into tyranny.
President Donald Trump has demonstrated beyond doubt that he expects to rule by decree, with advice from only a tiny cadre of hardcore loyalists, many of whom share his authoritarian views on the nature of political power. He largely ignores the advice of experienced and capable government officials, relying instead on extremist outsiders from the fringes of American politics or from big Wall Street investment firms with their own self-interested agendas.
President Trump’s refusal to divest himself from his business organization puts him in clear conflict with the U.S. Constitution. He has already demonstrated, from numerous examples, that he intends to make tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars using his position as president. Trump refuses to release his tax returns, so the American people can better understand the extraordinary degree to which the new president may place his own, and his family’s, personal financial interests ahead of the country’s.
This is exactly the kind of circumstance that our founding fathers feared most. And, in order to guard against a despotic president, the founders put in place a system of checks and balances, designed to prevent any branch of the government from seizing too much power.
Yet such a system is only as effective as the people placed in charge. Already, we have seen a Republican Congress that has virtually abdicated its oversight role over the Trump administration. While Republican congressmen, like Jason Chaffetz, of Utah, had promised endless investigations of Hillary Clinton’s emails, Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, and a long list of the usual GOP hobby horses had she won election, Chaffetz and his fellow Republicans have turned a blind eye to the most egregious conflicts of interest, potential illegal activity, and possible collusion with hostile foreign powers that we have seen since the Watergate era. And we are only four weeks into the Trump administration.
It is apparent that the Republican-dominated Congress lacks the political will to provide a much-needed check on our new president. Certainly, Trump’s supporters in the public won’t provide that check either. Recent polls of Trump backers show fully half believe that he should have the power to overrule unfavorable court decisions. Apparently, his own top White House staffers believe similarly, if the recent statements of senior advisor Steve Miller are any indication. In other words, many of Trump’s supporters seek only a Third World-style dictator, not an American president. That’s jaw-dropping.
In other words, at this point, it is only the judiciary, or mass insurrection, that stands between the Trump administration and despotic rule.
In such a circumstance, America’s Constitution and ideals are far better protected by a 4-4 Supreme Court than one dominated by conservative ideologues with questionable fealty to the principles of democracy. The Supreme Court of Chief Justice John Roberts is both highly partisan and activist, and it has willingly enacted sweeping and dangerous decisions (such as Citizens United) that have undermined our democratic processes.
By many accounts, Neil Gorsuch is a hard-right, ideological jurist, who would very likely join the court’s four other conservatives to further undo America’s democracy, favor industrial polluters, and ignore abuses of power by the Trump administration.
Our political moment is far too tenuous, our system far too fragile, to tip the scales in such a way. In our current circumstance, a 4-4 court is actually preferable to the alternative, since any decision requires some degree of consensus across the court’s political divide. A 4-4 Supreme Court isn’t going to sweep aside the checks that our founders wisely enacted. If Congress is any indication, a 5-4 Republican court very well might do so.
Democrats, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken, should weigh that very frightening possibility as they consider the nomination of Neil Gorsuch. Our future as a democracy could very well depend on it.