With all the other problems facing this country, one that we should not have to face in 2010 is the validity and honesty of our Supreme Court. Over the long history of the country, through the earliest days when transportation and communication were long and tedious, when modern appliances and inventions made life less complex, when some human beings owned other human beings and when a handful of men controlled most of the political power, we have had both honorable and corrupt judges.
But by this time, by the 21st Century, we should have ended corruption and entered into a period when election to the Supreme Court was both and honor and a responsibility so elevated that no man or woman would take advantage of that office to advance a career or an ideology.
But we must now face the likelihood that this is what has happened. One can discuss whether a justice has used the bench to interpret the Constitution to benefit a certain group, as in the case of Civil Rights and those who had been treated unfairly. One can discuss whether certain judges have been too liberal or too conservative in their viewpoints. But there is really only one test.
The test is the result upon society, the outcome of the decision. For, if our system of laws and the decisions at the very top level of our court system result in the oppression or the lack of relief for the vast number of its citizens, this–at the least–should tell us that our legal system fails us.
Often we think that our system is the evolution of the best and fairest system of jurisprudence that may be devised. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are multiple legal systems around the world with long traditions. Ours is far from perfect; this we know for a fact. This may be a time to take a look at the current state of our system to see how it may be perfected for the people.
Our system has long been a vehicle in the hands of both government, to accommodate government, justice, order, commerce, and domestic and international relations. The idea, however, that it has been free of outside influence is naive and simply incorrect.
In the Dred Scott decision there were two choices. One was to set men free. The other was to keep them in bondage. The answer is obvious to every honest and fair citizen in our current society. Freedom for all is obviously the right course in a free society. As Lincoln said, no society can live “half slave and half free.” But the Dred Scott Decision said that the Federal government had no right or authority to prohibit slavery in the individual states or territories. To anyone today or undoubtedly of that day, the decision was wrong.
The judgement of the Supreme Court was that a.) slaves were not citizens and so had no standing in the courts, b.) that the Federal government had no jurisdiction in the Missouri Territory and c.) that if a slave were brought into a federal territory, the Federal government again had no jurisdiction. So here we had a slave in a time of slavery and a Supreme Court that said that our Constitution allowed slavery, tacitly condoned slavery (he was not freed) and granted the continuance of slavery. This, said the Supreme Court, looking at the law, was the situation. But of course we can look at a man owned by another man and say that this is wrong in the extreme.
Let us assume that we have a law that says that all Muslims born outside the United States and converted naturally as citizens have no rights. Or at the least, some of their rights are taken away. We might see for a fact, in front of our eyes, that this is not the correct interpretation of the law for several reasons. But it the Supreme Court, urged by a President, or even an overwhelming poll of citizens, decides to bow to pressure, or agrees in sufficient numbers with the polls, they can twist and interpret the Constitution to meet their own ends. That is the message of Dred Scott.
So, with that in mind, we move forward to the year 2002. In a case where a company, Hoffman Plastics, fired four workers for union organizing, the company was ordered to pay over sixty thousand dollars in back pay to one of their employees. Although the man was with the company for six years and the company knew that he was an illegal alien for three years, the National Labor Relations Board said that the company was not only liable for reinstatement and back pay for the American workers but also for the illegal alien since they had known for three years that he was illegal and had not fired him but kept him employed illegally.
The Supreme Court overturned this settlement. Not only did they allow the corporation to go Scot free for hiring illegal aliens and throw out the settlement completely but they also did not enforce the labor laws for the union busting violations. As we will see this was not a single ruling. This is a pattern of the Supreme Court since 1980
The year 2007 and the Lily Ledbetter case. Here was a woman who had been discriminated against in pay for many,many years. She discovered this when she retired. She sued but the Supreme Court ruled against her because the statute of limitations, 180 days, had run out may years before. Of course it is a silly ruling, since she did not know that she had been discriminated against, so the only thing an employer need do is simply keep the information from the employee…lie to the employee, until the statute of limitations has passed. About as dumb and unfair a ruling as one could have.
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez, carrying 53 million gallons of crude oil ran aground in Prince William Sound off Alaska. Suffice to say that recent documentaries have showed that so thoroughly was the environment destroyed that virtually no commercial fishing has taken place there since. Most people have moved away or are occupied in other endeavors. The initial findings of the courts, not only quickly and conclusively decided that it was the fault of a ship’s captain who was drunk on duty and left the bridge at the crucial time the accident occurred but also determined that the damages to the land and people were approximately $580 million in actual damages and another $5 billion in punitive damages.
The appeals to this went on until 2008, when the case arrived, by this time reduced in punitive damages to $2.5 billion, at the Supreme Court of Justice Roberts. Now packed with appointments by Republican Presidents, in particular the most anti-populist, anti-middle class, anti-worker Administration since Calvin Coolidge, or perhaps Fransisco Franco, the court quickly went to work on behalf of Exxon.
They reduced the $2.5 billion award for punitive damages down to $507 million, a fifth of what the appeals courts had awarded and a tenth of what the initial judgement, evaluated on the spot, at the time of the accident, had determined was the value of the damage done to the People of that part of Alaska. In fact, that may have been even too little. Some lives were ruined forever. Some people whose lives had been lived in a certain way for generations were forced to leave their homes, their family histories, their traditions and–not of concern to multi-billionaire Exxon Corporation–their ability to simply make a living in the way that they had learned and enjoyed.
How did the Supreme Court work out for those people who wanted justice in Alaska, or Lily Ledbetter, or the Hoffman Plastics workers, whose union, let’s remember, was busted, and one of whose workers was simply denied his fair wages. Or the many other cases, not the least of which was Dred Scott.
And now we have the most serious case, potentially, of all. In the Citizens United case, where the Supreme Court actually reached out to take on an aspect of the law that was not included in the case before it, the Supreme Court literally legislated from the bench by stating that corporations–in contravention to all past precedents–may now provide campaign funds to any candidate directly.
What is the effect for the people? In the Exxon Valdez case, the final award, once it was finally determined by the Roberts’ Supreme Court, amounted to the profits on revenues from one, single day. Yet the people of Alaska and Prince William Sound were decimated, many of them, for life.
In the Citizens United case the outcome may be, and quite probably will be something like this: your local government is asked to put a toxic dump in a suburban area. The people are against it. There is a board of municipal commissioners, elected by the people. The corporation that wants to locate the toxic dump simply comes in and finances a campaign that says that he or she is working diligently on behalf of the people, that his opponent is a vile, evil person of unsound character and that the dump in question will be handled is such a way as to make the citizens proud.
With literally unlimited amounts of money–by comparison–available, the commissioners favorable to the plan are elected. The dump is established and pollutes the entire area. The people go to court to seek redress. They win in court, go to appeal and they win on appeal. The case, now ten years, like Exxon Valdez, and several million dollars in legal fees, arrives at the Supreme Court and they–as we now know–a bought and paid-for arm of the Republican Party and the giant Corporations–rules against the people of the community.
Corporate America has about $7.5 trillion available to pour into campaigns that will elect the people they want into office who will do–because that is what they are paid to do–anything corporations tell them.
Anyone who doesn’t think so may simply wait to see what is going to happen. This is not global warming, where the outcome takes so long that by the time the beaches are being overrun by seawater we will all be dead. The outcome of this decision is already being planned and you will feel it this November. If some legislation is not enacted between now and then–and even this legislation would be challenged by the corporate, lobbyist-paid, anti-American Republican Senators–we will see Senators, House members and governors, as well as judges all working for corporations by the end of this year.
It is ironic that a judicial system that was initiated by our forefathers, attempting to be the ultimate authority on behalf of the People should be turned against the people in exactly the opposite way that it was intended.