Supreme Court

  • September 18, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Adam Winkler, Professor Law, UCLA School of Law. This post is part of our 2014 Constitution Day symposium.

    In 1961, Yale Law School professor Alexander Bickel wrote a law review article extolling what he called the “passive virtues” of judicial decision-making. By this, Bickel meant that the Supreme Court might achieve better, more enduring results if instead of boldly asserting a constitutional vision the justices took small, narrow steps. He didn’t mean that the Court should stay away from controversial issues so much as lead the nation in a dialogue, venturing in on occasion to articulate important principles but allowing issues to percolate over time.

    In an era where the Supreme Court is known for its aggressive assertions of power, most notoriously in deciding a presidential election in Bush v. Gore, it may be hard to take seriously any notion of a passive or tentative Court. In recent years, some liberal scholars such as Cass Sunstein have promoted judicial minimalism, though mostly one suspects because of the conservative makeup of the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts. Yet if there is one area where the Court has seemed to follow Bickel’s lead, it is LGBT rights and, in particular, marriage equality.

    Consider that the Court has ruled on the constitutionality of laws discriminating or harming LGBT people in three major cases over the past twenty years: Romer v. Evans, striking down Colorado’s statewide ban on local anti-discrimination ordinances; Lawrence v. Texas, voiding bans on same-sex sexual relationships; and United States v. Windsor, invalidating the federal Defense of Marriage Act. These cases have been celebrated for expanding the constitutional promise of equal citizenship to LGBT people. And the justices have been criticized, too, for not going far enough. Romer refused to say that sexual orientation was a suspect classification triggering heightened scrutiny. Lawrence refused even to say that same-sex sexual activity was a fundamental right. Windsor was decided the same day as Hollingsworth v. Perry, where the Court used procedural issues to avoid ruling directly on the constitutionality of bans on same-sex marriage. 

    Such criticism is certainly appropriate given that the Court’s half-steps leave LGBT people in limbo. After Romer and Lawrence, federal courts continued to uphold other laws discriminating against LGBT people, such as bans on adoption. Windsor and Hollingsworth literally left LGBT people in loving relationships at the altar, still unable to marry in the majority of states. This state of affairs must be changed and soon. For many, rights delayed are rights denied.

  • September 18, 2014
    Guest Post

    by U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (D-Minn). This post is part of our 2014 Constitution Day symposium.

    The right to vote is under attack in many of our states. The Supreme Court is piling on. If you take the decisions in Shelby, McCutcheon, and Citizen’s Untied, you could conclude that the Supreme Court is making it easier to buy an election than to vote in one. 

    We need to amend the Constitution to declare an affirmative right to vote for all Americans. Prior to ratifying the 15th, 19th and 26th amendments to the Constitution, millions of Americans were denied the right to vote based on the color of their skin, their gender, and their age. All three amendments, along with the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, outlawed discrimination, but didn’t protect Americans’ right to go to the polls. 

    Many states have found ways around outright discrimination based on race, gender, and age through voter ID laws, ending same-day registration and early-voting, and slowing the move to online voter registration. Widespread voting fraud is often the justification for these laws; however dozens of non-partisan organizations have discredited this claim. In fact, voter fraud is very rare.  Thirty-two states have voter ID laws that keep some 23 million Americans from voting. Those without photo ID are disproportionately low-income, disabled, minority, young, and older voters.  

    Voters in 15 states will find it’s much harder to vote this year than it was in 2012. Some of the Americans in these states were protected by section four of the VRA before it was struck down by the Supreme Court in Shelby. They’re now victims of a blatant attempt to disenfranchise voters who might threaten their majorities. 

    At a time when the Supreme Court is gutting the Voting Rights Act and opening the campaign finance flood gates, we should be vigilant in fighting laws that suppress voting and drown out the political speech of everyday Americans. An affirmative right to vote means Americans can exercise their right to vote without political interference. Under our current system without a guaranteed right to vote, over 8,000 voting jurisdictions make decisions about how to administer elections. The result is massive inequality between jurisdictions, both unintentional and intentional. 

  • September 17, 2014

    by Paul Guequierre

    It has been apparent for quite some time that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide on marriage equality in the not-so-distant future. Since last year’s historic decisions striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and putting an end to California’s Prop. 8, court after court has struck down state marriage bans across the country.

    Last month Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the court will not "[duck] the issue" if a marriage equality case comes properly before the court and predicted that would happen by June 2016 at the latest. Last night, Justice Ginsburg was talking marriage equality again. Speaking to an audience in Minnesota, the Associated Press reports Ginsburg said cases pending before the circuit covering Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee would probably play a role in the high court's timing. She said "there will be some urgency" if that appeals court allows same-sex marriage bans to stand. Such a decision would run contrary to a legal trend favoring gay marriage and force the Supreme Court to step in sooner, she predicted.

    Now the question is which case or cases will make it to the high court. The Associated Press reports Ginsburg didn't get into the merits of any particular case or any state's gay marriage ban, but she marveled at the "remarkable" shift in public perception of same-sex marriage that she attributes to gays and lesbians being more open about their relationships. Same-sex couples can legally wed in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Bans that have been overturned in some other states continue to make their way through the courts.

  • September 17, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean and Distinguished Professor of Law, Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law, University of California, Irvine School of Law. This post is part of our 2014 Constitution Day symposium.

    Constitution Day, Wednesday, September 17, is a national day to celebrate the Constitution, but it also should be an occasion for critically appraising it and the government that it created. On September 17, 1787, the drafters of the Constitution signed the document and it was then submitted to the states for ratification. There is much to celebrate about the Constitution.  

    For 227 years, there has been democratic rule. The Constitution is a document that had enough certainty to create a working government and enough flexibility that although written for an agrarian slave society, it still can be used for the technological world of the early 21st century. It is a document that both creates power and provides checks on that authority. It protects basic values like separation of powers and freedom and liberty and due process of law.

    Yet any celebration of the Constitution needs to be tempered by recognition of its failures too. For the first 78 years of its existence, the Constitution explicitly protected the rights of slave owners. For 58 years, it was interpreted to approve Jim Crow laws that segregated every aspect of Southern life. The results are the enormous racial inequalities that exist today. According to the 2010 census, 27.22 percent of African-Americans live below the poverty level, compared with only 9.7 percent of whites. Thirty-five percent of all African-American children are in families below the poverty line.

    In a book to be published by Viking this month, The Case Against the Supreme Court, I argue that the Supreme Court deserves a good deal of the blame for the failure to deal with racial inequality throughout American history and today. In fact, my thesis is that the Supreme Court has largely failed throughout American history, especially at its most important tasks and at the most important times.

    The Supreme Court exists, above all, to enforce the Constitution against the will of the majority. The Court plays an especially important role in safeguarding the rights minorities of all types who should not have to rely on democratic majorities for protection. The Court also should be crucial in times of crisis in ensuring that the passions of the moment do not cause basic values to be compromised or lost.

    But the Court has had a dismal record of protecting minorities and has continually failed to stand up to majoritarian pressures in times of crisis. During World War I, individuals were imprisoned for speech that criticized the draft and the war without the slightest evidence that it had any adverse effect on military recruitment or the war effort. During World War II, 110,000 Japanese-Americans were uprooted from their life long homes and placed in what President Franklin Roosevelt referred to as concentration camps. During the McCarthy era, people were imprisoned simply for teaching works by Marx and Engels and Lenin. In all of these instances, the Court erred badly and failed to enforce the Constitution.

  • August 22, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal interviews Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, discussing racial problems in the U.S., major rulings, and law schools.

    Bob Herbert writes for Jacobin on the likelihood of another Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown: “The deepest concerns of blacks are seldom acted upon in any sustained, effective way. Most of the time, they are not even taken seriously.”

    In The New York Times, Claire Cain Miller explains how part-time pay hurts working mothers.

    Sarah Jaffe, Mariame Kaba, Randy Albelda and Kathleen Geier write in The Nation on the need to end the demonization of poor mothers.

    Carson Whitelemons of the Brennan Center for Justice explains how voting rights laws in Ferguson block citizens from having a fair say.