No other democratic republic has a supreme court with the authority to interpret the constitution as we do. And as the third branch of government the U.S. Supreme Court was intended to be completely independent of the executive and legislative branches and as divorced from politics as possible. But has it turn out as intended? That’s debatable.
During our early history a preponderance of Supreme Court decisions upheld slavery whenever that issue came up. And following the Civil War and emancipation the court consistently ruled in favor of slavery’s illegitimate stepchild, segregation. As the result of the “Three-Fifths Compromise” originally used to determine congressional representation and the tendency of southern senators and representatives to make a life-long career of Congress while amassing tons of seniority to control congressional committees, the South was able to dominate the federal government through the 1850s. The South wielded undue political influence over all three branches of government far out of proportion to its actual population numbers. Of our first seven presidents everyone not named Adams owned slaves.
Throughout our history through presidential appointments the current administration has usually “packed” the Supreme Court with justices favorable to its own particular political philosophy. And up until the Civil War, from 1836-64, Roger Taney, scion of a wealthy slave-holding Virginia family, served as chief justice. Not surprisingly, Taney presided over decisions upholding the legitimacy and legality of chattel slavery. The Taney Court is best known for its controversial 1857 Dred Scott decision that ruled “the black man has no rights that the white man is bound to respect.”
After the Civil War and up until relatively recent times, through political “quid pro quo” deals with conservative Republicans, southern Democrats were able to block civil rights legislation from ever even coming to a vote. It was the 1954 Warren Court in the Brown v School Board 9-0 unanimous decision that finally established equal rights for all Americans. In view of the evidence presented, no Supreme Court justice could have conscientiously voted otherwise. This decision forever changed he history of our nation.
The new game rules also made honest men of southern Democrats who had for almost a hundred years been voting with the Republicans on economic, fiscal and labor legislation. In return the GOP legislators would either vote with the southerners on bills involving segregation or absent themselves when such issues came to a vote. But following President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 civil rights bill there was an almost overnight mass exodus of southern “Dixiecrats” to the Republican Party led by South Carolina’s arch segregationist Senator J. Strom Thurmond. And this divide appears as solid and bitter today as it was in the 1960s.
Our only hope for fair Supreme Court decisions today is the fact that the justices are appointed for life and no longer depend on politicians’ whims for their compensation or tenure. Thus, they are free to vote their consciences without fear of reprisal. Justice Byron White, a Kennedy appointee, rendered many independent and conservative opinions during his tenure and Justice Hugo Black, a former Alabama Klansman, voted in the 9-0 1954 Brown v Board Decision to overturn the South’s Jim Crow segregation laws. This changed Dixieland forever. In today’s contentious political climate, possibly more than at any other time in our history, there is an urgent need for judicial integrity and independence. Will it arise from the present court?