9 Emotionally Neutral People (Or, the Supreme Court and the National Conversation

Each Wednesday, the Editorial features analysis of a news story from the week.

In the powerful film 12 Angry Men, the audience is taken into one of the most powerful places in a courtroom: the jury deliberation room. There, we watch 12 ordinary citizens debate a case that decides a man’s life. Since its original screening in 1957, the film has forced us to think about how power is held in quiet places, how influence is not merely in numbers, but in persuasion and rhetoric, and how from a back room in a courthouse decision is proclaimed.

While the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States (known also as SCOTUS) may not be angry, and we know they are certainly not all men, they nonetheless share the same amount of quiet, secluded power in shaping our national conversations.

Each year, the Supreme Court decides which cases it will hear in oral arguments. Hundreds of cases are rejected each year, determining that the ruling of the last appeal court will stand as the final word in that case. This also determines that those cases will not be the ones that capture national attention or on whom official ruling about major issues is decided. 

  The United States Supreme Court.

The United States Supreme Court.

Take, for example, the Hobby Lobby case. The crafts store based in Oklahoma is suing Secretary of Health and Human Services Sebelius arguing against the contraception coverage mandate in the new healthcare law. The case turns on a question of the interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and is (undoubtedly) similar to many other suits that have been brought against the HHS by religious organizations who resist the mandate. Oral arguments for the case (which you can read more about here) are set for March 25, where each legal team will have approximately 30 minutes to make their case (with frequent interruption by the justices). From there, the Supreme Court will hand down a ruling, and that ruling will become the chief interpretation of the relevant legal questions for all similar cases. 

The Supreme Court didn’t have to choose to hear this case. They do not have to rule on these legal questions. It is their choice to do so; and this choice is a particular kind of power in our legal system. For it is not only that they will hand down the legal ruling, but that in doing so they shape the scope of the entire legal conversation. Future cases will refer to Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, will rely on its legal reasoning, will appeal to its logic or attempt to overcome it. We might say that, like those 12 angry men, the justices’ decisions about their docket behind the closed doors on First Street, NE quietly shape a much bigger conversation. 

This coming fall, news outlets are already reporting about the cases likely to be heard by the Court. The Washington Post reports that the Court will hear arguments on cell phone privacy next year in two cases, “The twin rulings are likely to have broad implications for electronic privacy,” the Post says, and in an age with everything from massive credit card theft at Target to controversies about NSA activity, such cases will be incredibly influential in working out the relationship between law enforcement and the public. 

Similarly, USA Today reports that gun control is up for consideration in the cases that the Supreme Court is weighing for its docket in the fall. Three cases in particular challenge state or federal laws concerning guns outside of the home. This conversation is sparked by more than just the legal questions- high profile incidences of gun violence abound - but the shape of the legal questions, and whether they are answered by the nine justices or by whatever appeals court they last landed, is decided behind those closed doors. 

More cases like these abound: gay marriage, immigration, other aspects of healthcare - all these policy issues present themselves to our highest court year after year. The justices’ ability to  decide what cases are considered is more powerful than we acknowledge. These cases will shape our national conversation, legally but also philosophically and politically. 

What does this mean for us? First, I think it means we must pay attention to the cases chosen, not only the decisions rendered. We should examine, as conscientious public citizens, how those cases and their arguments are likely to move the conversation, and think about the ways we might want to advance the conversation in new directions aside from the Supreme Court ruling. But I also think it serves as a powerful reminder to us that our engagement and attention to politics must go beyond the voting booth. How we talk about politics and the Constitution depends on the cases that make up our legal history. How we (and by we I mean our legislatures and local governing bodies, lower courts, etc.) will proceed around these issues will come from the rulings of the cases that are decided behind those doors. 

Like the attention we might give to an evening with 12 Angry Men, I want us to give the same attention to the nine emotionally neutral. 

-Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at http://thewildlove.wordpress.com and tweets at @hilarysherratt