Members of the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, October 8, 2010. Seated from left are: Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Standing, from left are: Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito Jr., and Elena Kagan. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Liberals who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s perceived the Supreme Court largely as a constructive force, devoted to protecting civil, environmental and consumer rights and liberties, and interpreting the Constitution as a living document relevant to a rapidly changing twentieth-century world. It was a Court worthy of respect, if not reverence.
That was then. The 1 Percent Court is now in session.
In 2012, progressives are on the defensive, and the battles over the meaning and purpose of the law and the Constitution are being fought largely on conservatives’ political and linguistic turf. The power of ordinary people to band together through labor unions and class-action lawsuits is being steadily weakened as corporate prerogatives are strengthened. As Craig Becker and Judith Scott show on page 27, access to the courts is being steadily limited by decisions that undermine class-action suits or force disputes into arbitration, a playing field that favors business malefactors. As Jamie Raskin writes on page 17, after the Citizens United decision, an unprecedented torrent of corporate money has flooded the political system, distorting democratic processes and institutions. And perhaps most ominous, if one carefully reads the tea leaves from the Court’s recent decision on the Affordable Care Act, it appears that the commerce and spending clauses may soon be weakened as a constitutional framework for reining in corporate malfeasance.
Although Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion upholding the individual mandate as a “tax,” he went out of his way to explain why the mandate could not be upheld under the commerce clause. It is clear from the joint dissent that there are four other votes for this restrictive and retrogressive view of the commerce clause. The implications are potentially enormous for the government’s ability to address problems of national significance on every front—the environment, civil rights, labor rights and beyond.
Simultaneously, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in her opinion, in narrowing the law’s Medicaid provisions, the Court, for “the first time ever,” has found a Congressional exercise of the spending power to be unconstitutionally coercive. The Court, including some of the so-called moderate justices, has clearly opened the door to future challenges to Congress’s ability to attach conditions to the grants it makes to the states. A host of social welfare programs and anti-discrimination statutes could now be at risk. So, while many progressives hailed the Court’s decision to uphold the healthcare law, it is important to recognize that the opinion is based on decidedly conservative and pro-business principles with lasting implications.
Clearly, the story hasn’t ended. The ideological pendulum can swing back. But some things need to change first. The way forward requires a new way of thinking about the courts, new tactics for shaping the public debate and a lot more energy from the left. The timing couldn’t be more propitious: recent polling shows that the Court has fallen in popular esteem in recent years, particularly as the implications of Citizens United are beginning to be understood across the country, with the current onslaught of political ads funded by secret right-wing donors coming into our homes via our radios and television sets. Because Americans see the Court as basing its decisions on a political agenda that unfairly favors corporate interests, an opportunity to change public perceptions has opened up.