The highest court in the land of toys isn’t the Supreme Court, it’s apparently Lego, which won’t allow Supreme Court figurines in a play set because they are considered too “political.”
The question of the Court actually being a political body, and not the independent judicial body envisioned by the Founders, has been debated by a lot of brilliant minds, going back to the days of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.
But according to news reports that surfaced earlier this week, the Denmark-based toy giant has reached its own unanimous decision that the Supreme Court is a political body. Case closed.
The Daily Beast and Business Insider profiled the difference of opinion between Maia Weinstock, an artist and journalist, and Lego Ideas. Weinstock created a custom set of the four female Supreme Court Justices for International Women’s Day. She then submitted the design idea to as a project to Lego for consideration as an actual play set people could buy.
Lego Ideas considers these projects much like the Supreme Court considers cases. It allows website users to comment on a project, and once a project gets 10,000 votes or likes, it appears before a Lego Review board. The board considers projects in three sittings; lucky projects get made into official play sets, and winners get 1 percent of the play set’s net sales.
In Weinstock’s case, her proposal never made it into a local-court equivalent at Lego Ideas. She said on her own website that the Supreme Court play set was rejected and she was told by Lego "that it was in violation of their rule that they don't accept sets related to 'politics and political symbols.'"
The Daily Beast followed up with Lego to confirm Weinstock’s story. “It’s true, as a children’s toy brand, we refrain from any associations with active or current politics,” a Lego spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “Cases in which the LEGO brand are used in this manner have historical context. Any contemporary political association of the LEGO brand is unofficial content that is generated by enthusiasts and not endorsed by the LEGO Group.”
Lego’s contest guidelines lumped the four Supreme Court Justices in the same category as figures that depict sex, drugs, smoking, torture, terrorism, racism and bullying. Specifically, the Justices were disqualified under Section One, clause A, which bans play sets associated with “politics and political symbols, campaigns, or movements” as not fitting with Lego’s with “brand values and guidelines.”
So is the Supreme Court really a political body or a political symbol, as Lego assumes? We asked the National Constitution Center’s constitutional literacy adviser Lyle Denniston for an opinion. (Denniston has covered the Court for more than 55 years and is also the primary journalist at SCOTUSblog, the Peabody Award winning website.)
“From the time of the nation's Founding generation, the Supreme Court has struggled to stay out of politics, believing that this impairs not only its public reputation but its ability to gain and hold respect for the controversial decisions it sometimes issues,” Denniston told us. “However, the pundits and politicians continue to insist that the Court is simply engaging in politics by other means. That leads to a public perception that the Justices are never quite able to overcome.”
This concept is further explained in a recent compilation of essays called, “The U.S. Supreme Court: Equal Justice Under the Law,” where several Justices speak about the Court’s independent role.
“The Constitution prescribes a central role for the Supreme Court in the United States’ system of government. It establishes the Court as an independent judicial body whose judgments are insulated from the influence of popular opinion and the coordinate branches of government,” says Chief Justice John Roberts. “
Suzanna Sherry, a respected scholar from Vanderbilt University, is an expert on the topic of politics and the Supreme Court, and she contributed her own essay to the discussion.
“Many factors, therefore, influence the Supreme Court’s decisions. The justices’ political views play only a small role. Were it otherwise, the Court would be less able to serve as an independent check on the political branches, less able to protect the rights of individuals, and less secure in its legitimacy,” Sherry explains.
And if you want to go farther back, Alexander Hamilton defined the independent role of the Judiciary in Federalist 78.
“The general liberty of the people can never be endangered” from the judiciary, so long as it “remains truly distinct from both the legislature and the executive,” Hamilton argued. He also agreed with a concept from Montesquieu and Madison: “There is no liberty if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers.”
In recent years, some people have argued the Court is becoming more political, in the aftermath of decisions about health care and campaign contributions. But by plan and construct, the Court is designed to perform as a body outside of the political system.
As for Weinstock, she told us in an e-mail that she is impressed by the reaction to her story.
"Scores of people have either tweeted, commented, or written me directly their wish that this set were available for them and for their kids. I have been considering how to respond, and that may include some kind of appeal to LEGO. For now, I'm thrilled to know so many have been enjoying seeing these pioneering Justices in a new light," Weinstock said.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.
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