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Filler: Court guards U.S. -- against itself

Photo Credit: TMS Illustration by William Brown

The instinct, upon reading that a New York Times/CBS poll released last week shows the Supreme Court's approval rating has dropped to 44 percent, would be to worry and fret:

"For gosh sake, Myrtle, the Supreme Court of the United States has an approval rating that's only triple that of Congress. It's embarrassing. President Obama got 47 percent thumbs up, and he's so awful he managed to destroy this country's economy 12 months before he even took office."

Don't get me wrong; the approval rating of the nation's highest court is worrisome, but only because it's way too high.

If it came naturally to people to grant one another the liberties we are guaranteed in the Constitution, we wouldn't need the Constitution, or the Supreme Court to interpret it. After the Revolutionary War, at a post-victory kegger, the founders could have just stood in front of the nation, surrounded by the other founding fathers, and said, "You guys remember what we fought for, and be cool," and everyone would have been like: "Yeah, George, totally." And peace would have descended on the nation for eons to come.

But that's not how we are. Which is why we need institutions like the Supreme Court and the Constitution to oftentimes thwart politicians and voters, rather than please them.

As much as we're taught in school that democracy is the root of all goodness, it isn't. The majority is often wrong. The majority, in fact, elected a Congress so unappealing that 19 months later only 15 percent of us can stand it.

According to the majority, "American Idol" is the best television show, Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" is the best song and "Fifty Shades of Grey" is the best book. With that in mind, how much power do you really want to let rest in the hands of majority rule?

The Constitution and the Supreme Court are, if not always opposing majority rule, often its foil. They are the annoying guy at the party who says, "'Idol' is painfully manipulative, 'Call Me Maybe' is the forgettable melody of the month, and 'Fifty Shades of Grey'? Please. If you want to read porn, then read real porn."

That guy's correct, but he's not popular.

Ditto, often, the Supreme Court. In March 2011, the court handed down an opinion on an 8-1 vote that said, essentially, "Imagine the most hateful, rage-filled, ignorant things a group of humans could think. Things so ugly they not only make God weep, they make Satan hand him a tissue and give him a hug. Then imagine people screaming those things, near a funeral, at the bereaved family of a Marine killed in the service of our country. That's totally fine under the Constitution."

That's what happened when the court upheld the right of members of the Westboro Baptist Church to congregate near the funeral of U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder and wave signs. Signs that said, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" and "You're Going to Hell," because members believe God is killing our soldiers to protest the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.

It's unpopular people and half-witted causes the Supreme Court often must protect. When the justices don't stand up for dumb speech and the zaniest religions, the next expression shut down will be less offensive, the next gun law will be more restrictive, and we'll all be forced to read "Fifty Shades of Grey," because the really nasty books are gone.

The Supreme Court protects unpopular ideals, and people, and thus should be unpopular. In truth, popular ideals and people rarely need protections at all.

The best news in the poll is that almost the same percentage of liberals disapprove of the Supremes as conservatives. As long as the court infuriates both ends of the political spectrum equally, it's doing fine.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.