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The Change America Needs Won’t Come from the Supreme Court

Nine justices were never going to save us from the current crisis engulfing our democracy. Throughout our history, they seldom have.

June 29, 2018

The end of the Supreme Court term brought a flurry of dispir­it­ing decisions, from the justices’ fail­ure to seize the oppor­tun­ity to put some limit on extreme partisan gerry­man­der­ing by politi­cians, to their unwill­ing­ness to acknow­ledge the glar­ing bigotry behind the pres­id­ent’s Muslim ban. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retire­ment this week, was on the wrong side in every case, ending a 31-year tenure on the Court with a whim­per. 

With Kennedy’s retire­ment, the prospects for an end to conser­vat­ive domin­ance on the Supreme Court – now in its fourth decade – seem remote at best. Pres­id­ent Trump has the oppor­tun­ity to fill that vacancy with a younger, more ideo­lo­gic­ally conser­vat­ive jurist. In a rally Wednes­day night, he pledged, “We have to pick one that’s going to be there for 40 years, 45 years.” 

Of course, repla­cing a very conser­vat­ive justice with an even more conser­vat­ive one won’t change the outcome in most cases. Kennedy may have set himself apart through the moder­at­ing role he played on a few social issues – most notably affirm­at­ive action, repro­duct­ive free­dom and the rights of LGBT people. Those cases secured a distinct­ive legacy. But in so many decisions that mattered, decided by the narrow­est of margins, Kennedy marched in lock­step with the Court’s other Repub­lican appointees. He was the decid­ing vote in some of the worst rulings of our age. And our demo­cracy is the weaker for it. 

Kennedy was one of five Repub­lican appointees in Bush v. Gore who inter­vened in a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, on a dubi­ous legal theory, to hand victory to George W. Bush, essen­tially disen­fran­chising thou­sands of Flor­ida voters. He wrote the opin­ion in Citizens United that gave corpor­a­tions the right to spend unlim­ited sums in elec­tions, usher­ing in today’s dystopic world of dark money and super PACs. And he signed on to the ruling in Shelby County, which evis­cer­ated the Voting Rights Act’s most power­ful protec­tion against this coun­try’s epidemic of racially motiv­ated voter suppres­sion on the glib theory that racism in the South is more or less a thing of the past.  

So let’s not be deluded: on many if not most issues, the pres­id­ent would be hard pressed to find a more reli­ably conser­vat­ive vote than Anthony Kennedy’s. 

And yet, it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair. Our nation’s demo­cratic insti­tu­tions are all in the hands of a minor­ity faction push­ing a radical and unpop­u­lar agenda. Their victory was made possible by the distor­ted demo­cracy Kennedy and his cohort made possible – a demo­cracy where partisan legis­lat­ors are free to rejig­ger legis­lat­ive districts to fence out the other side, a demo­cracy where the interests of big money donors crowd out all others, a demo­cracy where lawmakers barely disguise their glee as they enact restric­tions on voting meant to shrink the elect­or­ate. With a firmer hold on the judi­ciary, their power will be that much harder to break. 

But it’s import­ant to remem­ber that nine justices were never going to save us from the current crisis engulf­ing our demo­cracy. Through­out our history, they seldom have. The justices did not step up during the moral crisis of slavery. They did noth­ing to prevent the South’s odious Jim Crow regime from taking root. And for decades, they blocked progress­ive efforts to address the great social crises of the Gilded Age and the Depres­sion.  

Whenever the courts have gotten in the way of needed change, Amer­ic­ans have had to rise up to take their coun­try back through popu­lar mobil­iz­a­tion and demo­cratic action. The abol­i­tion­ists and Radical Repub­lic­ans led a moral move­ment that changed the Consti­tu­tion, ending slavery and extend­ing citizen­ship to African Amer­ic­ans. The heroes of the civil rights move­ment toiled for decades to dismantle Jim Crow, prod­ding Congress and the courts to finally act. And from the Progress­ive Era to the New Deal, social move­ments modern­ized our national charter – demo­crat­iz­ing the Senate, insti­tut­ing the income tax, extend­ing the vote to women – and lever­aged govern­ment as a force for social change. 

When the current dark­ness lifts, as it will, Amer­ica will be ready for a new era of reform. But it won’t be led by the courts. 

(Image: iStock)