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The nature of American constitutional politics was forever changed during the Progressive Era. In the nineteenth century, the process of constitutional interpretation was a vague and decentralized enterprise balanced between the courts and the public square. The meaning of the Constitution was decided as much at the polls or on the battlefield as in court opinions. This balance started to give way at the turn of the century as federal courts began asserting greater authority in the definition of constitutional bounds. “Bench over Ballot” illustrates how the assertion of judicial supremacy in the Progressive Era precipitated a fight that upended the traditional dynamic of American politics. Populist-progressives championed the people's ultimate right to correct judicial decisions while traditionalist-conservatives stood for judicial supremacy to ensure a “government of laws.” The outcome of the political battle in 1912 was a consensus between Wilsonian progressives and Taftian conservatives in favor of judicial supremacy that banished the notion of popular supremacy and transformed the nature of constitutional politics from a popular, decentralized process to a vicious battle over the personal composition of the bench—a phenomenon deeply familiar over a century later.
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