No other democratic republic that I know of has a supreme court with the authority to interpret their constitution as we do. Our Supreme Court was intended to be completely independent of the executive and legislative branches and as divorced from politics as possible. But has it turned out as intended? That’s debatable.
As the result of the obviously rigged and unfair Three-fifths Compromise originally used to determine congressional representation and the tendency of southern legislators to make life-long careers of Congress while amassing tons of seniority to secure favorable committee assignments, the South was able to dominate the federal government, including the courts, through the first half of the 19th century.
Of our first seven presidents, everyone not named Adams owned slaves. Early Supreme Court decisions upheld slavery whenever that issue came up. And after emancipation the court mostly ruled in favor of slavery’s stepchild, segregation.
Throughout our history through nominations by the president, the current administration has been able to “pack” the Supreme Court with justices favorable to its own particular political philosophy. 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 rendered decisions upholding the legitimacy and legality of chattel slavery. The Taney Court is best known for its controversial 1857 Dred Scott decision where it ruled “the black man has no rights that the white man is bound to respect.” This legally-established African Americans as non-citizens.
After the Civil War and up until relatively recent times through “quid pro quo” deals with conservative northern Republicans, southern Democrats were able to block civil rights legislation from ever 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 convincing evidence presented, no justice could have conscientiously ruled otherwise. This decision forever changed our nation’s racial direction.
The new status rules also made honest men of southern Democrats who for almost a hundred years had 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 Sen. J. Strom Thurmond. And this divide appears as solid and bitter today as it was in the 1960s, maybe even more so.
Our only hope for fair decisions by the current Supreme Court is the fact that the justices are appointed for life and are no longer dependent on politicians’ favor for their compensation and tenure. Thus, they are free to vote their consciences with little fear of reprisal. Justice Byron White, a Kennedy appointee, rendered many independent conservative opinions during his tenure, and Justice Hugo Black, a former Alabama Klansman, voted for the 9-0 1954 Brown v Board Decision that overturned 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 a pressing need for judicial integrity, independence and statesmanship. Could it possibly arise from the present court? We shall see.