Herman Schwartz, a professor of law at the American University, is the author of Right Wing Justice: The Conservative Campaign to Take Over the Courts (2004) and editor of The Rehnquist Court (2002),
based on an October 9, 2000, special issue of The Nation.
The Supreme Court's medical marijuana decision was a major setback for common sense.
This April, in the case of Vieth v. Jubelirer, the Supreme Court came close to burying any hope of curing one of the worst diseases in our ailing democracy--the partisan gerrymander.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's new book, The Majesty of the Law,
appears at a particularly auspicious moment. As the swing vote on and
author of Grutter v.
Saving the worst for last, on the final day of the term the Supreme
Court issued 5-to-4 rulings on school vouchers and drug testing that
blow a huge hole in the wall of church-state separation and shrivel the
privacy rights of students.
Since 1996 Ohio has provided tuition aid for Cleveland grade school
students to attend private schools, special city or suburban public
schools and individual tutoring classes. In the 1999-2000 school year,
96 percent of the students in this program went to religious schools.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court approved the voucher system (Zelman
v. Simmons-Harris). Writing for the Court, Chief Justice William
Rehnquist noted that the tuition aid went initially to the parents, who
then endorsed the check over to the school. Because the parents could
have chosen one of the public school programs, the "incidental
advancement of a religious mission," wrote Rehnquist, is not
attributable "to the government, whose role ends with the disbursement
On its face, this is nonsense. The "achievement of a religious mission"
is directly attributable to the state, which actually pays the funds to
the religious institution; the parent is only a conduit who directs
where the money will go. The declared purpose of these schools is
religious indoctrination of students. The curriculums include prayer,
and all subjects are taught in a religious framework. Providing the
tuition money that makes it possible for these schools to enroll their
students puts the government squarely in the business of achieving a
Formally, the program was neutral, but in practice it was not. The
amount of aid was too little for nonreligious private schools but more
than enough for the low-cost religious schools, where the program paid
for the full tuition. The overwhelming proportion of this money thus had
to go to religious schools, which, of course, the Ohio legislature had
to know. Moreover, if formal neutrality is the test, a program will pass
muster even if all the money and students go to religious schools, so
long as it has some secular purpose. Since such a purpose can always be
produced, the door is wide open for massive state support of
fundamentally religious activity.
The focus on choice ignores the point of the Establishment Clause of the
Constitution. That clause is not designed to promote a choice between
religious and nonreligious institutions, nor is there any right to such
choice at state expense. The intent of the Establishment Clause is to
avoid spending taxpayer money in a way that promotes religion and thus
encourages sectarian rivalry. We had a great deal of such strife before
1787, and the clause was adopted to prevent this. Also, as Jefferson
explained, no one should be "compelled to...support any religious
worship, place, or ministry whatsoever...[even a] teacher of his own
religious persuasion"; Madison, the father of the Bill of Rights, shared
The decision will probably not result in many more voucher programs.
There is a lack of state money for education and strong allegiance to
public schools; studies by the government and other organizations do not
support the claim that voucher programs substantially improve academic
achievement. The decision will, however, produce many bitter religious
fights. As soon as the decision came down, state and federal legislators
introduced voucher legislation. There will also be conflicts over other
programs, including challenges by religious groups to the more stringent
provisions on church-state separation in state constitutions.
The Court's drug testing decision is also more important for what it
portends than for its immediate result. In 1989 the Vernonia, Oregon,
school district instituted a drug testing program for student athletes.
In 1995 the Court approved the program but stressed the special
circumstances of the case: Vernonia had a serious drug problem in which
athletes were the leaders of the drug culture; missed football plays and
serious sports accidents had been attributed to drug abuse. The Court
cautioned, however, "against the assumption that suspicionless drug
testing will readily pass Constitutional muster in other contexts."
That caution disappeared, however, when the Tecumseh, Oklahoma, school
district found drugs on the campus, heard students talk about drug use
and decided to test all middle and high school students who wanted to
participate in competitive extracurricular school activities. Lindsay
Earls, a member of the choir, the marching band, the Academic Team and
the National Honor Society objected but, after winning in appeals court,
lost in the Supreme Court (Board of Education of Independent School
District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls).
Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas ignored all the
special circumstances of the Vernonia case and dismissed the absence of
a demonstrated problem of drug abuse as unimportant. Because (1)
students have a reduced expectation of privacy, (2) the intrusion is
"negligible," (3) the sanction (exclusion from extracurricular
activities) is minor and (4) drug abuse is a bad thing, the program is
acceptable. Any effort to link drug abuse to choir singing, the marching
band or the Academic Team would have been ludicrous, and Thomas didn't
even try. On his reasoning, as long as the sanctions are minor, all
students may be subjected to drug testing because the other factors he
mentioned always exist.
Although the decision is far-reaching, its immediate impact is likely to
be modest. Few schools routinely test even their athletes, and
widespread testing is expensive. The decision underscores once again,
however, that for the Supreme Court, the rights of young people are
shredded when they walk through the schoolhouse gates.
The regulations proposed to implement George W. Bush's order establishing military commissions for the trial of "international terrorists" are mere window dressing and will not cure the fatal defects of the order. They provide the accused with so little protection as to raise a suspicion that they are made primarily to disarm the critics.
The fundamental problem is that the proposed system, including all its "judicial" elements, still lies entirely within the military chain of command and subordinate to the President, who is the ultimate authority over every aspect of the proceedings. But independent impartial judges who are not beholden to any side are the indispensable bedrock of any credible system of justice. They must be the ones to make the basic decisions or at least to review them. Without such a tribunal to monitor them, the various "protections" provided by the proposed regulations--the presumption of innocence, guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, even outside counsel--mean little or nothing.
This is not a novel insight. Congress and the military have recognized how indispensable an independent judiciary is to a meaningful system of justice: Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, verdicts are not final until they have been reviewed by a civilian Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. The provision of an appeal mechanism, especially in cases as politically and internationally sensitive as these, thus adds nothing to the fairness of the process--it merely insures that the final decision will be made by higher-ranking military officers who are still subject to military and presidential control.
White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, aware of these shortcomings, has sought to reassure doubters by noting that habeas corpus review will be available. But the order itself, which the regulations are only supposed to implement, expressly prohibits recourse to any court, as he well knows. For this reason, he was careful to describe the review as just a check on the jurisdiction of the tribunal, that is, whether the commission has the legal authority to try the particular accused. But review of a tribunal's jurisdiction does not touch on any substantive or procedural aspect of a proceeding, such as apprehension, detention, pretrial procedure, trial, evidentiary rulings, verdict or the sentence.
Moreover, as noted, the order specifically mandates that the ultimate authority is the President. Since the initial decision to apprehend someone is also the President's, and since everyone in the decision-making process, including the prosecutor, is subordinate to the President as the Commander in Chief, the police, prosecutor, some defense counsel, judge and jury are all rolled into one entity subject to one man--the antithesis of a just system. And given the rigidity of the military hierarchy and the natural desire of military personnel for promotion, who would challenge a judgment of their Commander in Chief that there is reason to believe someone is guilty of international terrorism and must be taken into custody--even if, as in so many instances, the action is as much for political reasons as for national security?
Compounding the difficulty is the absence of any real limit on what evidence may be admitted. The tribunal still may admit single, double and triple hearsay, affidavits, opinion and other dubious evidence. None of this can be effectively tested by cross-examination, especially since some of this evidence can be kept secret from the accused and his lawyers.
The decision to open up the proceedings to public view looks good, but it is only conditional--they may be closed if evidence that the tribunal considers worthy of secrecy is to be admitted. We have learned to our dismay how quick government officials are to classify information, even when it is already in the public domain. This Administration is particularly secretive, as shown by Bush's order holding back presidential papers from public release, as well as the refusal to reveal any information about the 1,000-plus detainees held since September 11. Moreover, the usual reason for secrecy is that disclosure will reveal methods and sources. But reliance on sources often involves very subjective judgments based on inaccurate or untrustworthy information. Yet it is just this kind of evidence that is most likely to be kept secret.
These are not tribunals worthy of a nation governed by law. And we don't need them. In the past eight years we have convicted twenty-six terrorists for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and other cases in ordinary criminal trials and without revealing any secrets. The Administration realizes this, for it has decided to try the alleged "twentieth hijacker," Zacarias Moussaoui, in the criminal justice system.
The problem with these proposals is not that some people will never be satisfied--it is that the demands of justice have not been satisfied.
Unchastened by the widespread denunciation of their election decisions, the Supreme Court's conservative bloc seems determined to continue using its one-vote majority to ram through an assault on Congressional power. Two recent cases illustrate how indifferent the conservatives have become to traditional notions of the separation of powers, fidelity to constitutional and statutory text and their own rhetoric about judicial restraint. This time the victims were the disabled and the environment.
In 1995 Patricia Garrett, a director of nursing at the University of Alabama Hospital, was demoted after taking time off for lengthy breast cancer treatment. She sued the state for damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and won in the lower courts. In February, however, the Court's five conservatives ruled that the Eleventh Amendment barred her suit and dismissed it (University of Alabama v. Garrett).
In six decisions since 1993, the five conservatives have ruled--usually over angry dissents by the other Justices--that suits against a state are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which authorizes Congress to enforce rights guaranteed by that amendment by "appropriate legislation," has, however, been held to override the Eleventh Amendment. Garrett tried to use that precedent. The 5-4 majority refused. As they read the legislative record supporting the ADA, Congress had not shown a need for the law.
The Eleventh Amendment merely denies federal courts the authority to hear suits against a state by residents of another state. The conservative majority has, however, interpreted it to incorporate the ancient and now-discredited sovereign immunity doctrine, the notion that "the king can do no wrong." As a result, state governments do not have to compensate their victims for state misconduct, no matter how egregious. And the conservative majority has applied this even to suits by a state's own residents, as in the Garrett case, and to suits in state courts for state violations of federally created rights, despite the express language of the amendment limiting it to suits by out-of-staters in federal courts.
As for Section 5, Rehnquist recognized that it grants Congress leeway in deciding how to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment, particularly when it comes to finding the facts and shaping a remedy. But then he cavalierly dismissed thirteen Congressional hearings, a report by a national task force that took testimony in all fifty states, census results and other studies as well as about 300 examples of state discrimination against the disabled, all cited in Justice Stephen Breyer's dissent. Even if all this did show a pattern of discrimination, Rehnquist wrote, Congress hadn't proved that the discrimination was "irrational," which he has defined elsewhere as "patently arbitrary." To comply with such a rule, however, Congress would have to evaluate the evidence for each of the instances of discrimination it relies on, an obvious impossibility and never before required of a legislative body. As a result, states can now violate Congressionally created rights for the elderly, pregnant women, the mentally retarded, the mentally ill and others with impunity, for they know they won't have to pay anything if sued.
Some six weeks earlier, the conservative Justices used a different technique in their campaign to undermine federal authority. Under the Clean Water Act, the Army Corps of Engineers regulates the discharge of landfill into "waters of the United States." In 1986 the corps issued a regulation, the migratory bird rule, which read the statute to include all wetlands used as habitat by migratory birds. When some Chicago suburbs tried to convert an isolated gravel pit that had become a pond used by migratory birds into a waste disposal site, the corps refused to allow it.
In another opinion by Rehnquist, the five conservatives struck down the corps regulation (Solid Waste Agency v. US Army Corps of Engineers). The pond was not connected to navigable waters, and for the majority this raised "significant constitutional and federalism questions" about whether Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce gave it jurisdiction over such sites. To avoid deciding the question, the majority said the Clean Air Act was not intended to authorize the migratory bird rule.
Reading statutes narrowly to avoid deciding "significant" constitutional questions is not unusual. But here there are no "significant" constitutional questions. A 1920 Supreme Court decision held that Congress may regulate matters affecting migratory birds, especially since bird-watching and hunting involve millions of people who spend billions of dollars on their recreation. The only way the conservative majority could justify striking down the migratory bird rule was by misapplying the avoidance rule.
Traditional deference to Congress has been replaced with a hostility and distrust not seen since the 1930s. And just as in the thirties, the conservative Justices' repeated blows at Congressional power constitute a major threat to Congress's ability to "promote the general welfare." So far the victims have included battered women, Indians, the elderly, gun control, the environment, the disabled. There will almost certainly be more.
For now, little can be done. But we can do something about the future. George W. Bush was put into office by Justices who have persistently cut into federal power in order to promote right-wing interests. We must persuade senators--of both parties--to block any Justices nominated by Bush who will pursue the same judicial agenda. Otherwise any Congressional or executive efforts to make this a more decent, safer America will be undermined by these Justices for years to come.
The Supreme Court was determined to make George W. Bush the winner of the election.
The Rehnquist Court's paeans of praise for state government are belied by reality.