The original Star Trek series, with William Shatner as Captain Kirk, would not be the first place one would look for a treatise on Constitutional law. But one episode has an interesting lesson for the Supreme Court to consider as it rules on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
In episode 54, “The Omega Glory,” the Enterprise is on a distant planet where, in a post nuclear war society, two tribes are fighting. One group calls itself the “Coms,”; the other calls itself the “Yangs.” The flag of the Yangs is the American flag. The plot pivots on Captain Kirk’s ability to understand the Yang’s “holy words.” These are words that only a leader may say. When the leader says “wa ta poplay,” Kirk has no idea what he is talking about. After generations, even the leaders are illiterate and the holy words are said from memory as they have been passed down over the ages.
The episode concludes when Kirk opens the box with the holy words and reads what is there. The words are “We the People.” Generations of Yang leaders moved the pronunciation of the words away from the original to the point where no one could determine what they originally meant.
Since the 1930s, the court has consistently moved away from the idea that the Constitution limits the power of the federal government. An ever-expanding Commerce Clause has allowed for the expanded reach of the federal government into every aspect of our lives.
The question before the court is whether the words of the Constitution have any meaning, or if we are lost in a babble of interpretation where only the legal high priests can mutter the holy words. An endless chain of compliance with rulings moving ever farther away from the original meaning and purpose of the Constitution will leave us, or has already left us, in a land of babbling and meaningless recitation of words which have lost their purpose.
The American Constitution is, at its core, a document with a Christian understanding of human nature. The framers assumed the fallibility and potential avarice of political leaders, if not their sinfulness. They tried to limit the impact of human failures by limiting the powers of government and moving decisions to the lowest possible level (i.e. subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching). The Bill of Rights is essentially a list of what the government can’t do.
The health bill before the court is antithetical to the Bill of Rights in this sense. It assumes a government obligation to provide for the needs of the people instead of facilitating mechanisms where the people work together for the provision of those services. It was developed in a world formed by the Supreme Court’s moving away from the understanding of the nature of leadership as laid out in the Constitution to a world where our national leaders are assumed to be fonts of wisdom.
The series of court cases that have led many to assume that Obamacare might be “constitutional” shows the problem with any corpus of legal interpretation. Whether it is the Torah, Christian scriptures and dogma, or a civil constitution, each successive opinion, writing, and line of interpretation is influenced by its predecessors. Unless there is a relentless commitment to understanding the original documents, the interpreters create their own universe where the words of previous interpreters are more important than the document they seek to interpret.
Stare decisis is a rational concept in any set of interpretations. The public depends on a stable set of understandings. The problem the court now faces with Medicare, social security, and other national benefits programs is complicated by the fact that generations of Americans have done their financial planning based on the legal interpretations the courts have been using for decades. Which is more important, or even more sustainable, the framer’s concept or the current set of laws and legal interpretations?
It would seem simpler for the Court to continue its current path and allow more power to the federal government. But our society is not illiterate. Citizens read the Constitution and the framers’ writings. Constitutional law is not an abstract exercise. Public support for the Court and the other branches of government is needed to keep the system going. But if the Court moves back to a more limited view of central government it must do so in stages and with the recognition of the impact of its prior rulings. People have come to expect more from the government and many will resist a new path until the economic realities become unavoidable.
It is now clear that the Court has to decide whether the U. S. Constitution has any effective limits on the federal government. That is, is there any real sense in which “We, the People” are still in control of our government?
Dale Steinacker is a writer living in Columbia, Maryland. This is his first piece for First Things.