Stephen Gottlieb: This Dishonorable Court

Jun 11, 2019

Last week we talked about ways to block appointments that could make this Court even worse. Is it worth it?

First, if allowed to fester, patterns of Court decisions can last for long periods.

In 1876, the Court denied any federal jurisdiction to prosecute racially motivated violence intended to change political control of government, setting the stage for segregation and intimidation which the Court finally began to address 64 years later. In 1883 the Supreme Court held that Congress had no power to ban racial discrimination in public accommodations. That remained the law until Congress and President Johnson took the Court on in 1964, a reign of discrimination and violence which continues to corrupt race relations.

Later in the nineteenth century, the Court set itself against the economic ideas of the Populists, Progressives and many state governments. That finally changed in 1937, after almost half a century, by which time President Roosevelt was on his way to appointing the entire membership of the Supreme Court.

Republicans like to blame the Warren Court for everything they don’t like but it was the Burger Court, with four Nixon appointees, that decided Roe v. Wade. Abortion foes still struggle to reverse it after nearly half a century.

In other words, patterns of judicial decisions can last for long periods despite concerted efforts to reverse them.

Second, what the Court has been doing under Chief Justice Roberts is very damaging to American decency and democracy.

In an infamous case, Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote that even if evidence turns up after a defendant had been convicted and shows that the defendant was probably innocent, the conviction was still final and no hearing to consider the new evidence is required.  So the petitioner, Leonel Herrera, was executed. We call the members of the Supreme Court “justices.” But justice had no sway in their thinking. The Court has revisited the issue several times, but it has not changed the law.

Instead the Court keeps getting worse, moving political power away from ordinary Americans. They let states monkey with election arrangements to prevent opposition supporters from voting. They protect partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts in order to protect incumbent parties.

While eviscerating ordinary voters’ rights, they protect the use of corporate cash to control the political process while attacking the political voice of American workers by shredding their unions’ economic base. That combination of support for corporate power and decimation of everyone else’s has been catastrophic for the electoral strength of ordinary Americans.

Beyond its blatant political partisanship, the Court repeatedly attacks the pocket books of ordinary Americans, protecting corporations from responsibility for the harms they do to customers and workers, protecting them from antitrust laws, undercutting employee wages and hours laws, and making us responsible for contract provisions that we may never have seen much less read or understood or had any realistic choice to decline.

The conservative majority has not been friendly to environmental protections that affect our air, water and warm our globe. Heaven forbid corporations should be responsible for the damage they do.

Past experience indicates that these decisions and the damage they are doing to American democracy and the economic system can fester for a very long time. But these problems are time bombs, so the nation can’t wait.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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