Sometimes the Supreme Court is Archie Bunker and Congress is his son-in-law Michael Stivic.
They both get stuck trying to go through a door at the same time, and the Supreme Court is waving his arms around saying, "Get away from me youse Meathead you."
But like it or not, both depend on each other and they live in the same house.
What the Supreme Court, or the federal courts in general, do for Congress is obvious.
Occasionally, Congress, wittingly or unwittingly, sails off into unconstitutional waters. When it does, the courts put a cannonball through the deck, sinking a law that violates the Constitution.
More often, the Supreme Court tries to figure out just what Congress meant when it passed the law. I know it's hard to believe, but not all laws enacted by politicians are crystal clear in meaning. Many are the result of compromise.
In order to get enough votes to pass the law, congressional sponsors have to word the text in a certain way. The result is often confusing.
So the Supreme Court will take a case, called a "statutory" case, to explain what the law means.
What Congress can do for the Supreme Court and the other federal courts in return is to come up with the money to keep them in operation.
Sometimes this process breaks down. Like now.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., and Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., on Oct. 3 to say that this symbiotic relationship is temporarily broken.
The problem is that Congress appears ready to let the federal government ride on its present budget for at least the next five months.
Rather than come up with a new budget, which can be controversial, Congress will enact something called a "continuing resolution." This means that agencies in the three branches of government -- executive, legislative and judicial -- have to make do with their current budgets.
That's not good enough, the chief justice said in his letter, and explained why.
Rehnquist is presiding officer of the Judicial Conference of the United States, which sets the policy for the federal courts. In that capacity, he asked the Senate's leaders to separate the judiciary from the rest of the government and pass a fiscal 2003 budget for that branch before the November elections.
"I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that this is necessary because the uncertain budget situation we face could have a significant, adverse impact on our judicial system," Rehnquist said.
That adverse impact is outlined in the chief justice's letter and in a summary by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. If Congress doesn't act:
-- Security efforts in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks would have to be curtailed. Rehnquist said he was particularly concerned because the "federal courts are such an inviting target for terrorists."
-- Payments to private lawyers, under the Criminal Justice Act, for indigent defendants would run short.
-- More than a month's worth of civil jury trials would be halted because of insufficient funds to pay juror fees.
-- Courts would have to freeze hiring so both new and vacant probation officer positions will go unfilled, "which will lessen the supervision of potentially dangerous felons released from prison."
Faced with that situation, you would think Congress would spring into action. If so, you would think wrongly.
There actually hasn't been a response to Rehnquist's letter. None at all.
Nevertheless, court officials still believe Congress will move. "That is our hope," Administrative Office spokesman Dick Carelli said Friday, "and our expectation."
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