Tag Archives: political activism

The People And The Court

Joseph Margulies has made a counter-intuitive argument at the legal publication Justia. The crux of his opinion is that liberals have misread the Supreme Court’s history, and as a result, have placed far too much reliance on the judicial branch.

As I recall, this was also an argument advanced by Kieth Whittington, a legal scholar, a few years back. As I remember the book–and my memory is definitely hazy– Whittington felt that over-reliance on the courts to protect individual liberties led to flaccid and apathetic political participation.

Justice Ginsburg has given the left a great gift, if it knows how to use it. Finally, and none too soon, the popular infatuation with the Court as the Great Protector of Individual Rights can be laid to rest. We will now see the Court for what it has been for most of its history—a reactionary branch committed to the preservation of wealth and the status quo. With the exception of a brief and unrepresentative period from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, the Court has not been an agent of progressive change. Quite the contrary, it has been decidedly unkind to claims pressed on behalf of underrepresented minorities and the poor. Outside of two short decades, the Court has been timid and conservative, lending its support for progressive policies only after they have already won widespread approval. By the time the Court managed to recognize a right to same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, for instance, it was already the law in 37 states and the District of Columbia

The Court that liberals lionize (or, as Margulies would have it, the myth of the Court that they have constructed) is, as he argues, a product of what he calls “the golden years” that produced cases like Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Roe v. Wade (1973), Miranda v. Arizona (1966) and and Gideon v. Wainwright(1963).

But what so many fail to appreciate is that all the rights and protections established during this period, literally without exception as far as I can tell, have been substantially diluted by the same Court that created them, some nearly to the point of elimination.

It’s hard to disagree with this analysis. The Court has blessed “school choice,” which has accelerated the re-segregation of schools, and has made abortion nearly unobtainable by upholding medically unnecessary and burdensome regulations. Margulies concludes that there is no judicial substitute for the hard work of political activism.

The practice [of taking matters to court] supplants democracy and sidesteps the people. It imagines that there is a substitute for politics, a shortcut that will allow us to achieve an enduring progressive vision without having to engage in the protracted ugliness of partisan politics. We point to past cases because we think it has happened before, but overlook the fact that these decisions did not endure. We put our faith in Oracles who stand atop politics because we are sickened by the emergence of a world in which facts no longer matter, science is ridiculed, and jack-booted racism is on the march. So we look to the Nine for our salvation. But they are not—and in truth have never been—our Saviors.

Win or lose in November, we need to heed this call to arms. Margulies predicts that we will:

As political campaigns well know, nothing motivates a constituency like a sense of threat. After the election of Barack Obama, for instance, the NRA parlayed fear of the new President into “a dramatic increase in membership,” and gun sales surged 60 percent.. ..The same thing happened on the left after the surprise result in 2016. Within months of Trump’s election, membership in the ACLU skyrocketed from around 400,000 to more than 1.8 million and contributions ballooned by $120 million. In the same way, the knowledge that the Court is lost to the left should trigger a groundswell of political and financial support for progressive and liberal candidates, lest the entire architecture of government be controlled by the right. In politics, threat leads to action, and after Friday, the sense of threat has never been so real. The ships have been burned; there will be no retreat to the Court.

Just as [RBG”s] death should invigorate the left, it will enervate the right. Campaigns articulate a vision of success and promise their supporters that all will be right with the world once that goal has been achieved. For the right, success has meant control of the Court. For decades, the right has struggled to achieve a secure majority on the Court, only to suffer one disappointment after another…. Now that victory is at hand, a letdown is inevitable. While threat produces action, victory leads to quiescence.

As my grandmother would have said, “From his mouth [okay, word processor] to God’s ears…”