Pure democratic government involves direct selection of leaders by those who are led. The United States is two thirds of a democracy. The Executive Branch is elected by popular vote every four years. The House of Representatives of the Legislative Branch is elected by popular vote every two years. The Senatorial part of the Legislative Branch is elected by popular vote in staggered parts over six years. The Executive and Legislative Branches then select all members of the federal judiciary. The American public has no direct input in the selection of the Judicial Branch.
Federal judges receive life-time appointments subject only to their own choice or, extremely rarely, impeachment. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase (in 1805) was the only U.S. Supreme Court justice to have articles of impeachment brought against him; he was acquitted and continued on the court. Fifteen lower federal court judges have been impeached in American history. Eight were convicted and removed from the court. Four were acquitted and three resigned. We currently have about 1,800 federal judges including 9 Supreme Court justices.
The Judicial Branch of our government is in some ways the most powerful and in every way the least democratic branch. While we have only one President, the President may serve a maximum of eight years and must be elected by popular vote. Of course, the Electoral College is the mechanism we use, but popular vote by the electorate is still the gold standard. That is, we have the right to help choose our Executives. No so our federal judges.
In like manner, we have the right to help choose our state’s Congress people and our state’s two senators. And while there are no term limits for the Legislative Branch, if we choose, we can vote them out. Not so our federal judges.
The historical reasons for how our ideal form of a Three Equal Branch democracy became two equal branches with the Judicial Branch being outside the control of the citizens are complex and, in many ways, convoluted. For the purposes of this column, I ask for a suspension of your legitimate questions about the etiology of how we got to our current non-democratic system. I respectfully recommend an examination of the most famous and momentous U.S. Supreme Court case, Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1cranch) 137 (1803). It was the original wrongly decided case that the highly political Chief Justice John Marshall used to outfox his bitter political opponent, President Thomas Jefferson, and usurp out of whole cloth for the Supreme Court the ultimate authority to determine if an act or law was constitutional. That was the beginning of how the federal courts have placed themselves beyond the reach of the citizens and slowly but inexorably created a government that, I submit, James Madison and the other Founders would not recognize. The ideal of a living democracy based on direct citizen involvement in the selection of each of three separate and equal branches of self-government has evolved into bicameral branches of Executives and Legislators who then choose the Judicial Branch.
Most experts now believe it would take an amendment to Article III of our Constitution to return to the purity of the Founders’ vision. If so, that painful and arduous process would be preferable to the alternatives.