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Opinion | Do We Have the Supreme Court We Deserve?

The justices’ responses to arguments this month suggested that a majority will soon force Maine, against the will of its legislature, to subsidize tuition for parents living in school districts without high schools who send their children to parochial schools. Roughly half the state’s school districts are too small to sustain a high school. To satisfy the state Constitution’s guarantee of free K-12 education, the state pays the tuition at private schools but excludes those offering an explicitly sectarian education. Where a federal appeals court, in upholding the exclusion, saw a principled distinction, the conservative justices saw only anti-religious discrimination.

As the court proceeds down its current path, will there be a reckoning of some sort? I’m not smart enough to know the answer, but a prescient essay that Russell Wheeler of the Brookings Institution published in 2019 suggests that political scientists’ long-held view of the role of the Supreme Court in American politics will be profoundly upended. Mr. Wheeler, Brookings’s longtime specialist on the federal courts, recalled a famous 1957 article in which the Yale political scientist Robert Dahl observed that because of regular presidential appointments, “policy views dominant in the court are never for long out of line with the policy views dominant among the lawmaking majorities of the United States.”

It was a comforting observation that anchored the court’s legitimacy in democratic theory. Mr. Dahl, who died in 2014 at 98, perhaps chose not to envision a president with the muscle, the will and the opportunity to place young partisans on the court — in other words, aided by the Constitution’s gift of life tenure, to capture the court for the next generation and freeze in place a legacy the American people never chose.

Is this the Supreme Court we deserve? It is not.

***

In late 2009, David Shipley, the editor of what was then called the Op-Ed page, invited me to write an opinion column every two weeks centered on the Supreme Court. He left The Times for Bloomberg News the following year, and we never actually met, but I remain in his debt. Writing roughly 26 columns a year for the past 12 years has given me not only a platform but a discipline, a privileged and rare second act in journalism. I have felt a deep connection not only to my subject but also to my readers and, of course, to the newspaper where I began, fresh out of college, as an intern for the storied political columnist James Reston.

This is the last of my regular columns, but not the last time my voice will appear here. I will venture an opinion from time to time. How could I not?

In 1998, I was fortunate to win a Pulitzer Prize. I was the publisher’s dinner partner at the celebratory dinner he threw for that year’s Times winners. Midway through the meal, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. asked me what my long-term goal was at the paper, where I had been working by then for 30 years.

“I would like to write a column,” I replied.

The publisher looked at me with a surprised expression. “A column!” he exclaimed. “What would you write about?”

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