In an interview in 2007, just after completing his first term as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts expressed his desire to reduce the “personalization of judicial politics” and to create a court that works as one. He wanted to emulate the courts of SCOTUS past where the Chief Justice guided the Court with an even hand. Most importantly, he wanted a court of consensus.
Eight years later, Chief Justice Roberts’ dream remains unrealized.
The most recent Supreme Court term has revealed an increasing divide within the usually tight-lipped court. Even when there has been unanimity in rulings, separate opinions have often been issued where a justice would concur in general, but emphasize their disagreement with some underlying principle. The idea of separate opinions was one of the things that Chief Justice Roberts wanted to avoid. Obviously, that plan did not work.
Looking over the past term, and from politics to religion to women’s rights, the Roberts Court has repeatedly sought to increase the rights of those who wish to oppress others. Their rulings have interpreted the Constitution in ways that seem to be moving our nation further away from a “justice for all” mantra to one that favors the rich, the powerful, and the male. Justice for me but not for thee, indeed.
For example, this term the Court allowed individuals to fund unlimited amounts of candidates and political organizations. They also said that a group that was accused of lying during a campaign could challenge a law that makes it illegal to make false statements in ads during campaigns. In addition, the Court limited the power of presidential recess appointments to when Congress was not in session for 10 days or more. Interestingly, discord was obvious in that unanimous decision when Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, wrote that the Court had expanded a “narrow tool” into a far reaching “weapon” for the president.
In terms of civil rights, it’s been a mixed bag. The Court ruled that voters are allowed to stop public universities from having affirmative action programs in Michigan. However, there were some bright spots, such as the unanimous ruling that police need a warrant before searching a suspect’s cell phone. The Court also put further limits on the death penalty by striking down arbitrary legislative determinations of when a person is deemed mentally ill. This decision was not unanimous though, as the most conservative members of the court dissented, saying the majority had left doctors and psychiatrists in charge of determining constitutional law. In essence they seem to feel that the states, not science, should determine who is mentally ill.
Speaking of science, the Court’s distaste for science was also evident in their ruling in the controversial Hobby Lobby case. The Court ruled that Hobby Lobby did not have to provide birth control coverage in its insurance policies because of the owners’ deeply held religious beliefs. Those “beliefs” said that scientifically proven and safe birth control methods such as the IUD or emergency contraception are “abortifacients.” The Court bought into the notion that hormonal birth control prevents fertilized eggs from implanting and that this is just like an abortion. Aside from the fact that none of this is true, the Court ruled that simply because the owners of a for-profit company believed it, they didn’t have to pay for coverage for their female employees.
Of course, if those women need to have an abortion, they will also be forced to listen to the “counseling” outside reproductive health clinics since the Court ruled (unanimously) that buffer zones targeting anti-choice advocates violate free speech rights.
The majority in the Hobby Lobby decision were all male and all Catholic, and it was that same majority that ruled in another religious test case. In Town of Greece v Galloway, the court stated that a Christian prayer referencing a deity during a public meeting did not violate the First Amendment Rights of non-Christians. While legislative prayer has long been upheld, it has generally been accepted that public meetings should avoid any semblance of endorsing a particular religion. In this case, the majority said if the non-Christians don’t like it, they can just leave–perhaps that’s what the Court thinks women who work for Hobby Lobby should do as well?
The dissenting justices in both cases included all three women, one of whom is a non-practicing Catholic. They pointed out how out of touch with reality the majority justices appear. In general, the dissenting justices pointed out the slippery slope of letting religious beliefs trump secular laws and how it could lead to coercion, even oppression, of those who do not share those beliefs. That seems to already be manifesting.
The day after the Hobby Lobby ruling, a religious college was also given an exemption from the ACA birth control mandate. There are now several organizations asking for religious exemptions so they can refuse to hire LGBT employees. Mississippi has already said that businesses don’t have to serve certain people if it violates their beliefs (like gay people).
With all this the Roberts Court is sending a clear message: that for those that do not share the values of the rich, powerful, Christian (and probably white) male, justice in the United States is probably not for you.
The Supreme Court has long made rulings that have changed the course of our nation. Some for the worse, such as the 1857 Dred Scott decision which ruled that slavery was constitutional and people of color could not be U.S. Citizens. It would take a civil war and a constitutional amendment to override that ruling. How far will we have to go before we can reverse the course set by this Court?