Bench Memos

Lincoln and the Court

Today, as John Miller and Yuval Levin remind us, is the sesquicentenary of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration.  Here is our greatest president’s mature understanding of the constitutional role of the Supreme Court–and the limits on that role–from his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861:

I do not forget the position assumed by some, that constitutional questions are to be decided by the Supreme Court; nor do I deny that such decisions must be binding in any case, upon the parties to a suit, as to the object of that suit, while they are also entitled to very high respect and consideration, in all parallel cases, by all other departments of the government. And while it is obviously possible that such decision may be erroneous in any given case, still the evil effect following it, being limited to that particular case, with the chance that it may be over-ruled, and never become a precedent for other cases, can better be borne than could the evils of a different practice. At the same time the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the government, upon vital questions, affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made, in ordinary litigation between parties, in personal actions, the people will have ceased, to be their own rulers, having, to that extent, practically resigned their government, into the hands of that eminent tribunal. Nor is there, in this view, any assault upon the court, or the judges. It is a duty, from which they may not shrink, to decide cases properly brought before them; and it is no fault of theirs, if others seek to turn their decisions to political purposes.

Matthew J. Franck — Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

Most Popular


Nordic Welfare States Worsen the Gender Gap

Following International Women's Day 2018, a host of policies have been promoted as ways to advance women's careers. CNBC, for example, has run a story arguing that policies such as parental leave for both parents can raise women’s incomes. In the Huffington Post we can read that adopting the welfare policies of ... Read More

UNC Caves to the ‘Buy Local’ Silliness

One of the silly notions loose in America is that there is some virtue in buying local -- preferring sellers simply because they're located in "your area" (city, county, state, country) over those located elsewhere. In other words, geographical discrimination is, supposedly, good. Governments and governmental ... Read More

Running With Trump

Jeff Roe, who managed Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign in 2016, has a message for Republican congressional candidates: Don’t run from Trump this year. Instead they should “[f]ix bayonets and charge the hill.” What exactly does this mean? It’s not that they should “support the president’s ... Read More
Politics & Policy

‘We Will Reduce Abortion’

Conor Lamb’s success has revived interest in “I’m personally opposed, but.” It’s a rhetorical convention — a cliché, really — that many Catholic Democrats have resorted to ever since Mario Cuomo popularized it with his speech at Notre Dame in 1984, as Alexandra DeSanctis explained a few days ... Read More