On Wednesday, April 22, Reuters ran a headline that read: “U.S. top court makes it easier for people to sue the government.” The article reported that in two cases, the Supreme Court ruled that the two-year deadline for legal action against the federal government may be ignored if the circumstances demand.
The cases themselves were pretty straight forward. One involved an immigrant who was mistreated while detained. The other was filed by the family of a man who died in a highway accident, with the family claiming that a defective barrier attributed to his death.
As it often is with Supreme Court cases, the significance of the decision comes not from the cases themselves, but from their implication, and Reuters hinted at it with their headline. Obama’s administration has been pushing for harder deadlines for legal action against the government. With this decision, however, the Supreme Court set a precedent that offers the American people more opportunity to challenge the government.
The U.S. government was created, of course, for the people and by the people. Along with that idea comes the concept of transparency: the government should be open and honest in its actions. If our government is for and by the people, then the people must be able to monitor and react to what the government does. How can that happen if there is no transparency?
While it may not seem significant, the extension of legal action against the federal government gives more power to the people at a time when that government is becoming antithetically powerful. In a poll released Tuesday, April 21, the Pew Research Center found that only five percent of Americans believe that the federal government is effective in sharing data with the public. Very tellingly, the same survey showed that only 23 percent of people have faith in the federal government “most of the time.”
Obama’s administration has been a total loss of transparency. According to the Associated Press, his administration has been the least transparent in U.S. history, featuring record rates of censorship and denial of requests employing the Freedom of Information Act. The amount of backlogged requests for information has grown by 55 percent during his administration. A study by “Reporters Without Borders” ranked the U.S. at No. 46 in terms of countries with the most freedom of the press. According to the Washington Times, a survey of veteran journalists claims that Obama’s administration is the most secretive since Nixon’s.
So it’s evident that there isn’t much transparency or trust between the U.S. government and the American people. But what’s the big deal? It comes down to the concept of for the people, by the people. If there is no trust in the government, how can the people be confident that they will be heard? Regardless of their catalyst, things like riots and violent protests — which have been numerous under Obama’s administration — are reflective of the breakdown of transparency and trust. If people feel they will not be heard through the proper avenues, such as forums or their own representatives, they will find ways to make their voices heard. As minor as it may seem, the Supreme Court’s decision to expand the power of the people is a promising change in the context of a government that offers almost no transparency.