Gustavus alumni speaks on U.S. Supreme Court

Kendra Smaby – Staff Writer

The Supreme Court, its decisions, and nominees have drawn an ever-increasing amount of attention in recent years. From Mitch McConnell’s “Block of Merrick Garland” to the approval of Amy Coney Barret, the discrepancies have certainly garnered mass media attention. This, coupled with the recent hearings on the nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, have led to an all-time peak in interest of the inner workings of the supreme court. All of these factors contributed to public interest in the topic. As such, the 2022 Ronald S. and Kathryn K. Christenson Lecture drew quite a crowd. Both students and the general public attended the lecture in Wallenberg Auditorium to hear Gustavus alumni and nationally recognized Supreme Court Scholar Dr. Timothy R. Johnson speak on what could be considered one of the most vital questions of our time: is the Supreme Court still the least dangerous branch of the federal government? Dr. Johnson began with an emotional and heartfelt thank you to his mentors, many of whom were in the audience. Political Science professor Chris Gilbert received a special shout out along with a memorial for the influence that Ronald S. Christenson had on Dr. Johnson’s time at Gustavus and a thank you to Kathryn K. Christenson for her continual funding of the lecture.
Dr. Johnson opened the lecture by adamantly asserting that he believes the Supreme Court is now the most powerful branch of the federal government. He maintained a professional and academic lens while simultaneously joking with the audience. Dr. Johnson began by explaining the historical precedence for Alexander Hamilton’s statement in Federalist no. 78 that “the judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither force nor will, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.” He then shared anecdotes including John Roberts’ resignation from Chief Justice of the United States to run for the governor of New York.
Dr. Johnson assured his audience that the power of the Supreme Court has come a long way since its inception citing John Marshall’s iron fist ruling and his creation of the precedent of Judicial Review. From there, Dr. Johnson structured his argument to depict 4 main judicial periods under which the court showed their importance; these periods, The New Deal Era, the Post New Deal Era, the Warren Court Era and the Roberts Court Era all showed the different ways in which the court can exert its influence over legislation. Dr. Johnson contextualized these eras citing multitudes of landmark cases that occurred in each era and the key ways in which the era changed legislation per judicial review. Some of these cases, such as Korematsu v. The United States, a case in which the court permitted the internment and functional incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II in the name of national security, are almost universally considered dark spots in the courts record. Despite the tragedy and gravity of the decision, this case is indicative of the massive amounts of power wielded by the court.
Dr. Johnson then moved on to discuss a more contemporary version of the Supreme Court by comparing the activism of the current court to that of the Warren court, which expanded defendants rights dramatically in cases such as Mapp v. Ohio, Gideon v. Wainwright, and Miranda v. Arizona. The only difference, Dr. Johnson indicates, is that the 6-3 majority in this current court swing opposite of the Warren court. Johnson indicated that controversial cases such as Roe v. Wade could face challenges in this current era. Dr. Johnson closed the lecture remarking that in the courts, “no more center exists . . . Polarization will continue.”

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