Last week I went to the Washington University in St. Louis Annual Dinner. It was at the Union League here in Philadelphia and, in addition to the amazing food (Petite Filet Mignon & Salmon, anyone?), we had a great presentation by Professor James L. Gibson. He's a professor of Political Science and a whole lot more, and you can read all about him here. His talk was entitled "Why Americans Love Their Courts and Hate their Congress".
Professor Gibson covered a wide range of topics, but one part in particular stood out for me. In discussing the difference between Americans' perception of the Supreme Court versus Congress, he explained that his research shows that people generally don't trust the motivations behind a Congress person's actions, viewing them as too "political". It's not that people generally believe that the members of the Court don't have political views--we all know they do. We also know that their views tend to color the way in which they make their decisions. The difference is in why those politics enter into their thinking.
To paraphrase Professor Gibson: The Supreme Court is a principled decision-making institution where rulings are made impartially, and the rules and procedures of the court are there to protect everyone and make things as fair as possible for all participants. Congress, on the other hand, is more self-interested, using strategic decision-making and manipulating procedural rules to achieve goals.
What does this all mean? Well, we understand that the Supreme Court justices have their own ideals and principles, and that they will rule based on these. They don't have any policital motivation beyond that, since they don't need to win votes. They also don't need to win support from other justices for future rulings. Thus, they are free to make rulings that truly align with their core beliefs and are consistent. The court procedures are applied to everyone equally, and level the playing field so that everyone starts from the same place.
In Congress, on the other hand, we know that Congress people often vote against their own principles, simply to achieve party consensus or to make a political statement. Their votes are often motivated by self-interest--as a way to win votes in an upcoming election or as a way to make someone else look bad. Their core beliefs often take a back seat to the strategic needs of the day. The procedural rules are often manipulated to allow one group to get an advantage over the other, and often a small minority can steer the entire body (for example, the filibuster). This sows seeds of distrust.
Of course, this makes me think about what I do as an architect, and whether I want to be seen as a "Justice" or a "Congressman". During the design and construction of a project, there are three major players--the Client, the Contractor, and the Architect. If everyone's advocating for their own self-interest and manipulating the rules to their own advantage, the likely result is a poor building with many problems. The Architect's role is ideally as a mediator between the Client and the Contractor, with the drawings and specifications acting as the ground rules. In addition to these, the Architect takes the history of the design process (the part the Client was most involved in) and a knowledge of construction (which the contractor is most involved in) and blends all this into an impartial opinion of what should be happening at all times on the project. The Architect still remains principled, but acts impartially for the good of the overall project. I strive to be a "Justice", because only when you act as they do can you establish the trust necessary to deliver a successful project.
So where do you fall? Supreme Court or Congress? Leave your thoughts in the comments.