Election 2016 and the Importance of the Supreme Court

Antonin Scalia, a Supreme Court justice from 1986 until his death in February, brought an incendiary temperament to the bench. With the court now in the balance, have too many people actually forgotten what it's like to live under a court not dominated by right-wing justices? (Photo: YouTube)

Election 2016 and the Importance of the Supreme Court

One could write a book about the impact of the current Court on the possibilities of a political revolution. Here's just a sample.

Many of us disagree with Hillary Clinton on a number of issues, in some cases intensely. But there is one overarching reason we should be vigorously supporting her election: The future of the Supreme Court is at stake.

An ardent Bernie supporter to whom I expressed this sentiment responded that the wounds are still fresh. Bernie's legions "are not ready to be told (as they are every four years) that the election 'is' of 'should be' or 'must be' all about the Supreme Court," he asserts.

Repetition doesn't make it untrue. At the risk of opening old wounds, not voting for Al Gore contributed, in part, to the current right wing Court. I don't recall people needing persuading to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012 but in his 8 years Obama has been able to prevent the one vote conservative majority widening to 5. And if the Republican Senate had not, in an unprecedented move, refused to vote on Obama's current nominee for Scalia's seat, next January the new Court would have a slim one vote liberal majority.

Ginsburg is 83, Kenney is 80, and Breyer will be 78 in mid August. Since 1971, the average age of retirement for a Supreme Court justice has been just under 79 years.

This means that aside from filling Scalia's seat the new President likely will make 3 additional nominations in his or her first term. That is the largest number since FDR's second term, when 5 New Deal Justices set a new course for a Court that for a generation had repeatedly thwarted progressive legislation at the state and national level. We have social security, a federal minimum wage, the right for workers to organize, school integration and many more such policies because of those new Justices (plus FDR's threat in early 1937 to pack the Court, a threat that led one conservative Justice to change his vote).

We know the numbers, but many seem to think the future of the Supreme Court is simply one more issue to be evaluated, no weightier than others. Indeed, only at 11:15 PM on the first day of the Democratic Convention was the status of the Supreme Court briefly discussed by Bernie Sanders. Hillary mentioned it even more briefly the last day of the convention.

The Supreme Court can enable or disable our work. In the last decade the Justices have made it much harder to challenge wealth and power, to nurture the weak and assist the poor, to extend social justice to minorities, to reduce violence, stop discrimination, and defend the right to vote.

One could write a book about the impact of the current Court on the possibilities of a political revolution. Let me make that impact concrete with a small sample of what the Court has wrought.


The Supreme Court's most infamous and widely discussed intervention occurred in 2010 when it overturned a corporate campaign spending ban first advanced by Teddy Roosevelt. The infamous Citizens United decision allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money, much of it "dark money", hidden from public scrutiny.

Citizens United changed the nature of American democracy. In the first five years after the decision one billion dollars poured into super PACs, $600 million of which came from just 195 donors and their spouses. Between 2006, before the Court decision, and 2014, after the decision, independent expenditures increased 25 fold.

In 2014 the Court allowed unlimited individual contributions. Both decisions were by a 5-4 vote. Dissenting Justice Breyer predicted, "If the court in Citizens United opened a door today's decision may well open a floodgate."

And so it has. In 2012 the Republican National Committee and its two Congressional campaign committees spent a total of $657 million. In early 2015 the Koch brothers announced that they and their friends would spend $889 million on the 2016 election. That is buying an awful lot of dirty tricks, non-profit front organizations, lawsuits and, dare I say, candidates.

There is much talk about the need to reverse Citizens United, but that can't be done through Congress. Only a Constitutional Amendment or a Supreme Court reversal can. The chances of the former are infinitesimal. If Hillary Clinton wins the chances of the latter are quite good.

In 2008, the Supreme Court ended 150 years of laws and policies that steadily expanded the electorate when it upheld an Indiana law requiring a photo ID. The vote was 6-3 when Justice Breyer voted with the conservative majority. The Justices conceded that those least likely to have state-issued identification are disproportionally poor and nonwhite. The state had offered no examples of voter fraud that would have been prevented with voter ID.

Since the Supreme Court decision, at least 23 states have either introduced more restrictive voter procedures or tightened those in operation.

In 2013 the Supreme Court upped the ante by allowing states to require proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. Earlier this year Kansas and Georgia and Arizona became the first to adopt that requirement.

In 2013, by a 5-4 vote the Supreme Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) freeing the nine covered states and dozens of counties in New York, California and South Dakota to change their election laws without advance federal approval.

Even when we are able to defend our democracy, our victories have been fragile. In 2015 the Court upheld the right of citizens to take authority over redistricting out of the legislature and invest it in an impartial commission. That same year the Court overturned an Alabama law that racially gerrymandered election districts. Both decisions were by a 5-4 vote, easily reversible by a new Court.

Corporate power

Several decisions by the Supreme Court have increased the power of corporations over workers and consumers.

In 2001 the Court interpreted a 1925 federal law allowing arbitration among businesses as a preemption of state laws protecting the right of workers to access the traditional judicial system. They did this despite the clear language of the original law: "nothing herein contained shall apply to contracts of employment of seamen, railroad employees or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce."

In 2011 the Court overturned a California law prohibiting arbitration clauses that ban class action suits. Class action suits offer one of the few ways to truly penalize corporations for misbehavior yet today it is all but impossible to successfully litigate a class action suit. On the third anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Public Citizen identified 140 cases decided between 2011 and 2014 in which the judges cited the Supreme Court rulings as justification for dismissing a class action

In 2013 the Court overturned a California law making arbitration contracts that contained "unconscionable" provisions unenforceable. Astonishingly, the Court concluded that even if the arbitration procedure is designed in such a way as to make it impossible for a worker or consumer to win, the results of arbitration are still legally enforceable.

The 2001, 2011 and 2013 decisions were all decided by a 5-4 vote.

Today employment and consumer contracts routinely contain forced arbitration clauses that prohibit access to the traditional justice system. Unlike that system, arbitration is governed by corporate-friendly rules. As Catholic University of America law professor Peter B. Rutledge notes, "Arbitrators do not have to follow precedent. Arbitrators also are not bound by the same rules of evidence and procedure as courts. Often there is no transcript, and arbitrators are not obligated to provide detailed findings of fact and conclusion of law in their awards." Complainants can be forced to travel thousands of miles and put up thousands of dollars up front to attend an arbitration proceeding.

Another way the Supreme Court can expand corporate power is by weakening the ability of workers to wield collective power.

Scalia's death earlier this year resulted in a series of 4-4 votes. One tie vote resulted in a victory for workers when it left intact the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upholding a California law requiring non-union workers to pay their "fair share" of the collective bargaining costs. The decision affects 8 northwestern and western states. If Scalia, or another likeminded Justice were on the bench the resulting 5-4 decision overturning California's law could have meant the demise of a nearly 40-year-old Supreme Court precedent that applies to more than 5 million public employees in 23 states and the District of Columbia.

Gun control

In 2007 and more broadly in 2010, the Court overturned 70 years of precedent when it declared that the Second Amendment applied to individuals, not militias. It was a watershed moment and made gun control infinitely more difficult. Since then, rather than gun control initiatives we have largely witnessed a race between states to see which can make guns most ubiquitous and conspicuous. The only remaining sacrosanct areas at this writing appear to be churches, courts and legislatures. The two Court decisions were by a vote of 5-4.


In 2016 a 4-4 tie left in place a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit overturning a 2014 executive order that allowed as many as five million unauthorized immigrants who were the parents of citizens or of lawful permanent residents to apply for a program that would spare them from deportation and provide them with work permits.

A Woman's Right to Choose

In 2014 the Court made it more difficult for poor women to prevent pregnancy when it held that privately held businesses could be exempt from the Obamacare requirement that insurance cover contraception based of the company's religious beliefs. The vote was 5-4. Justice Ginsburg warned in her dissent of the potentially broad impact of the Court's decision, given the attitude of religions toward women and gay people, "The Court's expansive notion of corporate personhood invites for-profit entities to seek religious-base exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths."

One of the Court's final rulings this year overturned a Texas law that would have effectively ended access to legal abortion for millions of women. The vote in this case was 5-3 because Kennedy voted with the Court's four liberal Justices. Two new Justices could reverse that decision. Donald Trump has vowed to appoint Justices who oppose abortion.

Discrimination. In 2011 the Supreme Court dismissed a gender discrimination suit by thousands of women across the nation against Walmart. The Court threw out more than 40 years of class action jurisprudence by ruling that class members must prove they have suffered the same injury, not just a violation under the same law. The vote was 5-4.

In 2015, in a case involving discrimination against minorities in housing, the Supreme Court did uphold the traditional standard for deciding whether discrimination has occurred: Complainants must identify a business practice that has a disproportionate effect on certain groups of individuals while not being defensible by sound business considerations. The Court had been asked to substitute a much higher standard proof of "intentional discrimination." The vote was 5-4.


In 2009 the supreme court ruled that prisoners have no constitutional right to DNA testing even though at the time such testing had already played a role in 240 exonerations, according to the Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School. In 103 of those cases, the testing also identified the actual perpetrator.

Health Care

A new liberal Justice could make even our victories much sweeter. The American Care Act was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2012 by a 5-4 vote when Justice Roberts, surprisingly, voted in favor. But the Court rejected the Act's Medicaid expansion mandate. Almost 8 million people lack health insurance as a result.

The Supreme Court meets only 6 months a year. The media dutifully reports the decisions, debates the meaning for a day or two and then moves on. We're not exposed to the cumulative impact nor the long term consequences.

Supreme Court decisions reach into every aspect of our lives, both political and personal. The very structure of how we govern, our ability to elect progressive candidates and enact progressive policies is determined by their interpretation of the constitution and legal precedents. There have been activists Courts of all stripes but none, at least since the early1930s has been as determinative of our ability to make a progressive future as this one.

In this election, removing the Supreme Court as a key obstacle in the way of achieving a fair and just future should be the goal that spurs our activism and our ballot choice.

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