When ranking the branches of the federal government, good, better, best doesnt quite cut it. Far better an Olbermannian concoction of worse, worser, worst.
But, by logic, the least obnoxious of a bad lot is, still, the superlative best. And of the three branches, there is an obvious candidate for that title.
Its the judiciary.
Its certainly not Congress. Our federal legislative branch is not merely unpopular, but universally and ethusiastically despised. In the public mind, the House of Representatives represents corruption and self-dealing and a stubborn stupidity about the basics of real life. But rarely, if ever, the public.
The only positive element to our current Congress is that by consistently refusing to act as the first branch of government, as the framers of the Constitution envisioned, it hardly poses a threat to the other branches. But neither does it check those branches.
Instead, Congress increasingly hands away its power and authority to the executive branch to write thousands of powerful regulations to implement and enforce the tens of thousands of pages of vague legislative mandates and assorted gobbledy-gook. Congresss legislative and linguistic largesse also creates all sorts of tedious legal issues for the judiciary to sort out, boosting the political clout of judges.
But if not Congress, why not the executive branch, beloved by Nixonians then and now?
The question almost answers itself.
The executive was the branch our founders worried about most. America took the first major break from monarchy; the fear of returning to some form of quasi-monarchy was once very real. That fear doesnt really exist today, of course, just a lot of uneasiness about how doggone hot we frogs find the water.
The ability of families — falling far short of the genius of the Adamses — to erect political dynasties (Bush pater and fils) or nearly so (Clinton pater and mater) suggests that this fear continues to retain some ground in reality.
The executive branch was designed to defend the country and our Constitution, to enforce the laws passed by Congress, unless held unconstitutional by the judicial branch, and to execute government policy that is determined — save for the presidential veto power — wholly by others.
Does that bear any resemblance to the current functioning of our executive branch? Is this president or the last one (or the one before that) someone who sees his role as limited constitutionally?
Of the founders, Alexander Hamilton was the most ardent proponent of a strong executive, but even his argument rested heavily on the need for the executive to check the power of Congress. In Federalist No. 73, Hamilton writes, It [a strong executive] not only serves as a shield to the executive, but it furnishes an additional security against the enaction of improper laws. It establishes a salutary check upon the legislative body calculated to guard the community against the effects of faction, precipitancy, or of any impulse unfriendly to the public good, which may happen to influence a majority of that body.
Hamilton, apparently, was expecting the president to stop the pork-barreling, earmarking, wasteful excesses of Congress. Hows that working out for us?
And what about the very crowded alphabet soup of executive branch agencies? Are Congress or the courts (or even Mr. Obama) effectively managing them? (Just wanted to inject some levity. Cue back to serioso now.)
Yet, it is not entirely by default that the judiciary wins the prize as best branch of the government. The federal judiciary does function in a fashion that Madison and Jefferson might actually recognize.
Sure, the courts churn out bad decisions as regularly as McDonalds sells fries. Ive vehemently disagreed with my share of federal court rulings, from the controversial 5-4 decision in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton striking down 23 state term limits laws to the more recent initial upholding of the monstrous McCain-Feingold speech regulation scheme.
Often the very foundations of their judgments are flawed. For instance, the federal courts offset the burdens on our constitutional rights against the compelling state interest in advancing government policy. This makes no sense. The most compelling state interest is not to burden our constitutional rights.
But most notably, the judiciary has remained fiercely independent — to our consternation and to our delight — but also, regardless of outcome, in keeping true to its constitutional mission.
The prime reason the federal judiciary has remained so independent? The lifetime tenure of federal judges. As I written before, I support term limits for judges at the state level . . . and for U.S. Supreme Court justices, too (their power is simply too great to allow unlimited lifetime tenure). But at the federal district and appeals levels, lifetime tenure has worked just as intended.
We turn to the federal courts, again and again, to defend our rights to speak, to petition government, to stop local officials from taking our private property, and even to protect us from the federal government reaching into every business and home in the country to command us to purchase health insurance.
Our government has almost entirely escaped the restraints written into our Constitution. Thats why referring to any branch as best leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Still, we citizens do fare better before judges than before our own elected representatives.