The big media talk a lot about stalemate in Congress, but they are missing the real story. While representative democracy is dysfunctional, the Supreme Court has taken over with its own reactionary power grab. In case after case, the court’s right-wing majority is making its own law—expanding the power of corporations and the very wealthy, while making it harder for ordinary citizens to fight back.
Worst of all, the Roberts Court is trying to permanently inhibit the federal government’s ability to help people cope with the country’s vast social and economic disorders.
This is not a theoretical complaint. Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the conservative Republican Court is building a barbed wire fence around the federal government—creating constitutional obstacles to progressive legislation in ways that resemble the Supreme Court’s notorious Lochner decision of 1905. That case held that property rights prevail over people and the common good.
For more than thirty years, the conservative Justices used that twisted precedent to invalidate more than 200 state and federal laws on major social and economic concerns like child labor, the minimum wage, bank regulation and union organizing. New Deal reformers were stymied by Lochner at first, and they only managed to overturn it in 1937 and only then when FDR mobilized a take-no-prisoners campaign to reform the Supreme Court by weakening its unaccountable power.
The Roberts Court has so far produced a slew of precedent-smashing decisions designed to hobble left-liberal reform movements before they can gain political traction. Citizens United opened the floodgates for corporate money; McCutcheon scrapped the dollar limits on fat-cat donors. Roberts gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, implicitly endorsing the GOP’s crude campaign to block racial minorities from voting. The US Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable have won numerous victories, large and small, expanding the rights of their corporate sponsors.
“We are in an era of very aggressive corporate litigation to expand the constitutional prerogatives of business,” Kent Greenfield, Boston College law professor, explained. “We are on the verge of going back to the Lochner era where every new regulation will be subject to numerous constitutional attacks—any regulation of content in commercial speech attacked on First Amendment grounds, anti-discrimination law or healthcare legislation attacked on religious grounds. You’ll see financial legislation challenged on due-process grounds.”
Despite his genteel manner, Justice Roberts is a “smart strategist” who plants provocative phrases in his decisions that he can cite later as false precedents, according to Law Professor Gregory Magarian of Washington University in St. Louis. “Roberts tells a story that sounds like they are not making radical change,” Magarain said. “But they are still making things up, still making up social policy. And the judgments are still pointed toward the past.”
Anxious Democrats applauded Roberts when he upheld the constitutionality of Obamacare, but many realized after-the-fact that Roberts rejected the Commerce Clause of the Constitution as the standard basis for justifying federal interventions on social and economic problems. This means the Supreme Court now has a five-vote majority in favor of shrinking federal authority. In effect, the Roberts Court was mimicking the narrow logic of the Lochner court 100 year before. The words and reasoning are there, just waiting for the right case to apply them.