What Did the Supreme Court Just Teach Us About Leadership?

The Supreme Court’s job is to settle legal disputes.*

The Supreme Court gets its legal authority from the Constitution, but it maintains its public authority by being viewed as a legitimate and fair arbiter of disputes.

By the time a case reaches the Supreme Court, a specific legal dispute can morph into a dispute about our nation’s values and institutions.

When making decisions on cases that are intertwined with our nation’s value and institutions, it must do so in a way that, over time, maintains its public legitimacy.

The Supreme Court has multiple sources of public legitimacy, including:

Legal Legitimacy: to the extent the Supreme Court tightly follows the letter of the law and / or historical legal precedent, it can harness legal legitimacy.

Pragmatic Legitimacy: to the extent the Supreme Court solves major national disputes in a pragmatic  fashion, it can harness pragmatic legitimacy.

Moral Legitimacy: to the extent the Supreme Court appears to be on the right side of morality, it can harness moral legitimacy.

I’m sure there are other forms of legitimacy, but these three came to mind as I read this week’s decisions.

In the Obamacare case, the majority’s pragmatic legitimacy argument secured more votes than the dissent’s legal legitimacy argument.

In the gay marriage case, the majority’s moral legitimacy argument secured more votes than the dissent’s legal legitimacy argument.

Of course, the majority arguments were within the realm of legal reason, though at times certain arguments seemed to be somewhat stretched.**

What to take away from this?

I think there are broad lessons for leadership here; namely, that very few important decisions are ever decided or evaluated solely on the narrow merits.

Rather, leaders can use other tools, such as pragmatism and morality, to push for broad scale solutions that transcend the internal domain specific logic of the dispute at hand.

When I first saw leaders use this power, I would often get frustrated. “They’re not being logical!” I would say in my head. But, overtime, I’ve come to realize that moral and pragmatic leadership, so long as its guard-railed by some base level of rationality, can be extremely powerful and effective.

The Supreme Court, either consciously or unconsciously, understands this power as well.


*Note: I’m not a legal expert, so consider this very speculative / real legal experts may have already fleshed all this out.

** It’s also worth noting that all of the justices have penned majority opinions that harness moral and pragmatic legitimacy, but these same justices, in their dissents, inevitably decry that legal legitimacy is the only valid legitimacy.

2 thoughts on “What Did the Supreme Court Just Teach Us About Leadership?

  1. Andrew Cox (@acox)

    Good point about moral and pragmatic leadership.

    But I wouldn’t be so quick to call the position of the dissenters in King v Burwell one of “legal legitimacy.” The long established principles of statutory construction say the court should read a statute in its entirety, not hemming to one meaning of an isolated phrase when that clearly is contrary to the meaning and intent of the entire legislation. The majority’s holding doesn’t depart from legal legitimacy to embrace pragmatism, it resists an effort by the petitioners (and the minority) to apply entirely new methods of statutory construction to a law. That was always unlikely to succeed, which is why Republicans began a massive effort to redefine the history of the debate over the legislation to argue that Congress actually intended to withhold subsidies from the federal exchanges.

    Which perhaps says something about the leadership power of ideology and malleable facts.

    1. nkingsl

      Good point. Mattera emailed me and made this case as well. You all are right that majority grounded itself in legalism as well….


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