THE RADICAL, REACTIONARY, TOTALLY POLITICAL SUPREME COURT

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The Supreme Court’s rulings last week on abortion, a gun violence prevention measure, and public funding of religious institutions reflect a political and ideological agenda, not a coherent legal or judicial philosophy, as I will discuss below. All of them overturned long-standing precedents – something all of the justices had pledged not to do in their confirmation hearings. There are three important areas where the contradictory nature of the reasoning underlying these rulings is most evident:

  • Belief in a weak federal government and strong state governments,
  • Belief in “originalism,” i.e., that the language and meaning of the Constitution and its amendments as and when written should be adhered to, and
  • Belief in the legality of precedents and rights unspecified in the Constitution only if they reflect long-standing practices in the country.

In this post, I’ll explore the belief in a weak federal government and strong state governments as a rationale for the justices’ rulings and demonstrate their inconsistent and contradictory use it. I’ll cover the other rationales in subsequent posts.

Conservatives have traditionally supported a weak federal government and strong state governments. However, for the six justices in the majority in each of these recent rulings their commitment to this belief seems to depend on the issue.

There are two main pillars behind the weak federal and strong state government position. One is support for “states’ rights;” leaving as much of the public sector role and policy making to lower levels of government that are closer to the grassroots. Having control of schools and elections in local and state hands are two bedrock conservative examples of this. The exercise of “states’ rights” has, both historically and currently, reflected racism. Racism was an important component of “states’ rights” politics in the 1960s as it was pushback against federal Civil Rights laws, including voting rights and school desegregation.

The second pillar of conservative support for a weak federal government is opposition to regulation of businesses and the private sector. Conservatives typically believe that an economy that is as unfettered by government regulation as possible will be the most productive (if not necessarily the fairest). They also typically believe in market place and private sector solutions to social issues (e.g., privatization), not government programs as solutions.

In the June 24, 2022, ruling overturning Roe v. Wade’s establishment of a right to an abortion, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not constitutionally guarantee this right. On the face of it, this reflects a belief in a weak federal government and a “states’ rights” approach where policies on abortion would be left to state governments. However, Alito’s opinion seems to go out of its way to ensure that anti-abortion advocates could pursue a nationwide, federal ban on abortion (i.e., a strong federal government role) by repeatedly writing that the abortion debate is being returned “to the people and their elected representatives.”  He does not write that the decision is being returned to the states. The implication is that those “elected representatives” could be those in Congress. Therefore, within this one decision and opinion, Alito and the five other concurring justices are at best unclear and at worst contradictory about whether they believe the Constitution creates a strong or weak federal government in relation to the states, at least in realm of abortion law. [1]

The Supreme Court’s June 23, 2022, decision declaring unconstitutional New York State’s requirements for obtaining a permit to carry a gun in public is an assertion of a strong federal government with the power to overrule states’ laws regulating guns. The Court is furthering federal enforcement of an individual “right” to bear arms based on its interpretation of the Second Amendment. (I discussed the problems with their interpretation of the Second Amendment in this previous post and won’t go into them here.) This ruling overturns a state law that has been in place for over 100 years and effectively renders any state law restricting ownership or carrying of a gun presumptively unconstitutional. The ruling, among other problems, seems to ignore the language of the Second Amendment that the right to bear arms is predicated on “being necessary for the security of a free State.” A state and the people living in it are neither more secure nor freer with an expanded “right” of individuals to carrying guns in public. [2]

On June 21, 2022, the Supreme Court issued a ruling ordering the state of Maine to allow public dollars to pay for children’s attendance at religious schools. Putting aside for the moment the First Amendment language that prohibits the government from making any “law respecting an establishment of religion” (as the six deciding justices apparently did), this ruling reflects a belief in a strong federal government that can tell states how to spend their money. This is the antithesis of “states’ rights” and a weak federal government, which conservatives typically support. This follows a pattern of decisions where the Supreme Court has overturned decades-old, affirmed precedents and ordered state or local governments to take actions that benefit or support religious groups. In Missouri, the Court ordered the state to include religious organizations in a program funding playground maintenance. In Montana, it ordered the state to include religious schools in a scholarship tax credit. It ordered Boston to include Christian groups in a program allowing non-profit organizations to fly a flag on a city flagpole. [3] Most recently, it ruled that a Washington state school district had to allow a football coach to lead players and others in prayer on the football field, despite students reporting that they felt coerced. [4] (I wonder how the Court would rule if the religious group asking for government support were Jewish, Muslim, or some other non-Christian religion. We may find out one of these days.)

One final note. Election laws and the running of elections (along with schools) have been hallmarks of conservatives’ insistence on state responsibility and control with no or very limited federal government involvement. In recent years, the Supreme Court has overturned the Voting Rights Act, stopping federal oversight of election laws in states that had (and have) a history of discriminating against Black voters. It has refused to intervene as states have engaged in voter suppression and extreme gerrymandering with political and racial goals. However, back in 2000, the Supreme Court stepped into the presidential election in Florida (in Bush v. Gore) and ordered the state to stop counting ballots. The dissenting justices and many others identified this decision as a turning point when the “conservative” justices on the Court first displayed in a dramatic way their willingness to cast aside any coherent judicial philosophy or reasoning, upend precedent, and issue a ruling to achieve the political result they personally supported.

The recent rulings by these six Supreme Court justices (Roberts, Alito, Barrett, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Thomas) are clearly political and ideological, if for no other reason than the judicial philosophy and reasoning behind them is inconsistent and contradictory. Given the lack of a coherent judicial philosophy or reasoning, the only rational conclusion I can come to, is that these justices are acting on the basis of their personal political and ideological beliefs and sympathies, and not as judges upholding the laws established by the legislative and executive branches of government. Rather, they are dramatically legislating from the bench; something conservatives used to criticize others for doing. They are radical reactionaries, not conservatives. (See this previous post for more detail on why this is appropriate terminology for describing them.)

In my next posts, I will review the six radical, reactionary Supreme Court justices’ contradictory and inconsistent uses of their supposed beliefs in “originalism” and in the legality of precedents and rights unspecified in the Constitution only if they reflect long-standing practices in the country.

In the meantime, Heather Cox Richardson has posted a 33-minute reflection on the state of our (supposed) democracy after the recent momentous and anti-democratic decisions by the Supreme Court. Her commentary and perspective are, as always, thoughtful, poignant, and steeped in history. I encourage you to listen to all or part of it (perhaps the last ten minutes if you’re short on time). I’ve linked to it on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/john.lippitt.161/

[1]      Hubbell, R., 5/4/22, “The hard path forward,” Today’s Edition Newsletter (https://roberthubbell.substack.com/p/the-hard-path-forward)

[2]      Johnson, J., 6/23/22, “ ‘Devastating’: Supreme Court blows massive hole in state gun control efforts,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/06/23/devastating-supreme-court-blows-massive-hole-state-gun-control-efforts)

[3]      Atkins Stohr, K., 6/22/22, “Remember separation of church and state? Apparently the Supreme Court doesn’t.” The Boston Globe

[4]      Conley, J., 6/27/22, “Supreme Court takes ‘wrecking ball’ to separation of church and state with prayer ruling,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2022/06/27/supreme-court-takes-wrecking-ball-separation-church-and-state-prayer-ruling)

2 thoughts on “THE RADICAL, REACTIONARY, TOTALLY POLITICAL SUPREME COURT

  1. Thanks, Bob. The lack of an ethics code for and the lack of ethical behavior of the Supreme Court justices is astounding! I probably won’t get into the corruption but I might write about the funders of the campaigns to get these radical justices confirmed. No surprise, but there’s lots of overlap with the funders of other right-wing politicians and initiatives.

  2. Hi John, Good piece, but disturbing. I’ve heard a lot about corruption, especially with Scalia, but that would probably be too sordid to go into. Bob

Comments and discussion are encouraged

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s