How should we assess the Supreme Court’s performance over the course of American history? That is the central question of my new book, The Case Against the Supreme Court. My conclusion is that the Supreme Court often has failed at its most important tasks and at the most important times. Recognizing this is important in order to focus on how to improve the institution and make it much more likely to succeed in the future.
Obviously the evaluation of any institution requires criteria by which it can be assessed. In the introductory chapter, I posit that the Court exists, above all, to enforce the Constitution. The Constitution exists to limit what government and thus the democratic process can do. As Marbury v. Madison said long ago, the limits contained in the Constitution are meaningless unless enforced and that is the “province and duty” of the courts. The judiciary is particularly important in protecting the rights of minorities (of all sorts) who cannot rely on, and should not have to rely on, the democratic majority. Also, the courts need to play a special role in times of crisis to ensure that society’s short-term passions do not cause it to lose sight of its long-term values.
I believe that all, liberal and conservative, can agree that these are fair criteria by which to assess the Supreme Court. I also think that liberals and conservatives can agree that the Court very often has failed. Part I of the book looks at the Court historically. Chapter one looks at the Court’s dismal record over the course of American history with regard to race. For the first 78 years of American history, from 1787 until 1865, the Court aggressively protected the rights of slave owners and upheld the institution of slavery. For 58 years, from 1896 until 1954, the Court approved and enforced the doctrine of “separate but equal.” The Court’s failure with regard to race continues to this day, as evidenced by the decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, which declared unconstitutional a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is the first time since the 19th century that the Court has invalidated a federal civil rights law to protect racial minorities.