Adam Gopnik recently wrote about “Lessons for the Supreme Court from the Jedi Council.” In that article, he puts forward the idea that just as the denizens of the Star Wars universe “seem to have an undue cultural investment in the wisdom of the Jedi Council, even in the face of its ineptitude,” so to do Americans unduly venerate a Supreme Court whose inner workings appear “more like the manufacture of after-the-fact rationales designed to give the appearance of footnoted legalism to what are, in truth, the same ideological passions that have the rest of the country in their grip.” Gopnik disclaims the concept of textual interpretation, maintaining that our nation’s highest judicial body resembles its intergalactic counterpart in how it “seems to be functioning on guesswork and mutual hypnosis more than actual expertise.” Accordingly, he concludes that neither the Jedi Council nor the Supreme Court should be afforded nearly so much deference or respect.
The question becomes whether these two august bodies are enough alike to justify such a comparison or conclusion. There are certainly similarities between the two. In The Phantom Menace, the Jedi Council decides, after much deliberation, that Anakin Skywalker should not be trained in the ways of The Force. But Qui Gon Jin (and later Obi Wan Kenobi in his stead) defy that order and decide to teach the boy anyway. In the real world, after the Supreme Court held that same-sex marriage was a right under the Constitution, Texas’s Attorney General soon thereafter announced that despite that decision, under his interpretation Texas officials did not have to abide by the ruling. In both the Star Wars universe and our own, prominent officials have taken Gopnik’s advice to heart and feel free to ignore the high court’s decisions.
What’s more, much of the Star Wars prequels’ production took place during the George W. Bush administration, which led to some inevitable parallels between political climates of the Republic and the United States at the time. The Jedi Council’s concerns about then-Chancellor Palpatine invoking various emergency powers during a time of war cannot help but feel like a commentary on the legal challenges the Bush Administration faced when invoking the theory of the unitary executive in its use of executive orders and similar measures. While, as a general matter, the Star Wars films are only loosely political at best, the prequels do feel as though they were intended to comment on current events in some small way.
But there’s another, broader way in which the Jedi Council and The Supreme Court resemble one another — they’re both surprisingly unified bodies. Though Yoda and a couple of select cronies seem to be effectively running The Jedi Council on their own, on the few occasions we see the whole council deliberating, there’s rarely much dissension in the ranks. For the most part, despite scattered agitators like Qui Gon Jin and Anakin Skywalker, this association of Jedi Masters speaks with a single voice.
While the Supreme Court is not quite so perfectly aligned, over the last two decades, the number of unanimous decisions from the Court has far outstripped the number of 5-4 decisions. To that point, a 2014 New York Times analysis found that even Justice Scalia–the jurist whom Gopnik paints as a symbol of a hopeless ideological divide–voted with liberal Justice Kagan 74% of the time. Even Justices Thomas and Ginsburg–the two members of the court whom the Times’s analysis found disagreed the most–still voted the same way two-thirds of the time.
That’s not to say The Supreme Court is one big happy Wookiee family. There are deeper analytical dives that suggest not all unanimous decisions are created equal and that the Court could still be considered divided despite these statistics, particularly on more ideologically charged cases. But the Court is not, as Gopnik assumes, comprised of the legal equivalent of the Jedi and the Sith — a pair of warring camps who can never reach consensus. It’s a group of people who are in agreement as much more often than they are at odds.
Upon some reflection, Gopnik might alter his comparison further. He could compare the Supreme Court not to the Jedi Council, but to man who invented it — George Lucas. Gopnik’s skeptical account of the justices seems to align with many (but not all) fans’ opinions about the father of Star Wars himself. The general consensus paints Lucas as a man who bent and twisted venerated ideas out of shape, in service of a product riddled with poorly-justified breaks from the past and gaps in logic, with no regard for whether the results worked or fit with what had come before. It’s not hard to imagine critics of the Court on both sides of the aisle viewing recent high-profile decisions in the same light.
That said, Gopnik isn’t wrong to point out that despite that, many Americans view the Supreme Court Justices as akin to Jedi–individuals who possess recondite knowledge and impressive abilities that lift them above us mere mortals. And he’s right to note that while each of the Justices is fiercely intelligent and accomplished, they are also still human beings and thus just as susceptible to ideological biases and other external influences as we less-adept rabble.
Regardless, there’s little reason to ascribe to them either the best or worst qualities of their galaxy-hopping counterparts. No, the Supreme Court Justices are not sitting in some Jedi temple, divining the undisputed truths of the universe. They are, instead, accomplished scholars attempting to discern the right answer to incredibly complex, often politically-charged questions as best they can, with the admitted failings of their human faculties still in play.
Whatever the ideological divide on the Court, and whatever Gopnik thinks of Scalia’s judicial philosophy, the late Justice believed in the merits of this process. He even recommended Justice Kagan, a legal thinker whose views differed sharply from his own, when an opening on the Court emerged. As David Axelrod put it, Scalia told the Obama administration that even if he “could not have a philosophical ally in the next court appointee, he had hoped, at least, for one with the heft to give him a good, honest fight.”
That is, perhaps, a better lesson Court-watchers can take from the galaxy far far away. George Lucas spends a great deal of time and effort in the Star Wars prequels focusing on the prophecy of a chosen one who will bring balance to the force. Over the course of those films, that “balance” takes a rather deadly turn. But other works set in the Star Wars universe have examined the concept of balance in more creative ways, eventually positing a middle ground as the best approach to the The Force. Perhaps that same philosophy can help make the Supreme Court more seem more comprehensible and worthy of our admiration.
It’s easy to divide the world into binary states of good and evil: the light side vs. the dark side, good guys vs. bad guys, high-minded interpretation vs. mudslinging partisan politics. But our world, and our courts, are more complicated than that. From Lincoln’s team of rivals to the checks and balances that persist in the American form of government, our system is founded on the notion that people with different ideas and opposing viewpoints can come together to navigate that web of complexity and find, if not the truth, then perhaps, at least, the best way forward.
To that end, the Supreme Court is not comprised of demigods who can commune with The Force to discern the perfect way to apply various legal principles, nor is it made up of hapless figureheads, liable to have the wool pulled over their eyes by some conniving Sith Lord. It consists, instead, of some of our country’s brightest minds, trying their best to strike that balance through debate, disagreement, and sometimes even detente. The effort is a noble one.
It’s often said that when it comes to three branches of government, the President has the power of the military; Congress has the power of the purse, but The Supreme Court only has the power of its words. John Marshall could not wield a lightsaber in response to President Andrew Jackson’s declaration that the Supreme Court Justice “ha[d] made his decision, now let him enforce it.” Instead, Marshall had only the force of his arguments and the hope that his colleagues, and the people, would accept them.
Through these principles, our nation created a body that has, at times, grievously erred, but which has also upheld our most cherished rights, served as a guardrail for our most fundamental liberties, and endured for more than two centuries. Its champions accomplished all of this using only the pen–an elegant weapon for a more civilized age–and the very public trust in their efforts that Gopnik maligns. While those efforts may lack the supernatural allure of The Force, and while they are by no means above critique, they are worthy of our respect, both for that process and for the individuals who carry it out, be they of The Council or the counsel.