Apr 1, 2013
Today, two cases on same-sex marriage are in the hands of a Supreme Court that has consistently ruled to reduce individual rights and increase inequality. The Supreme Court has upheld new restrictions on women’s right to choose, as well as the discrimination against women in the workplace. It has also effectively outlawed voluntary efforts of public schools to racially integrate and reduced the few environmental protections that still exist.
These kinds of rulings are consistent with what the Supreme Court has done throughout history with only a few very rare exceptions. The Supreme Court may pose as the upholder of basic rights and equality, but in reality it is one of the U.S. capitalist class’s key institutions to impose its rule on the workforce and population.
Certainly, up until slavery was abolished by the Civil War, the Supreme Court upheld its legality. In one of its most famous decisions, the 1858 Dred Scott case, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, along with six other justices, ruled that the Constitution “distinctly and expressly affirmed” the right to property in slaves. According to Taney, Black people were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race ... and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” That was how these supposed “enlightened” and “esteemed” justices justified such barbarism.
Then, following the Civil War and the period of Reconstruction, the Southern planter class and Northern capitalists returned the newly freed black population to another form of servitude through the violence and lynching that accompanied the Jim Crow laws. In its sweeping 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the Supreme Court upheld that, also. Of course, Jim Crow was not just aimed at the black population, but poor white workers and farmers, by dividing the workforce against itself. These laws were a tool to break and weaken social movements and fights of the poor and the oppressed. The justices cynically justified Jim Crow by claiming that black people were supposedly treated “separate but equal.”
When workers dared rebel and go on strike against harsh working conditions and impoverishment imposed by the capitalists, the Supreme Court came down firmly on the side of the capitalists. Starting in 1895, the Supreme Court upheld labor injunctions by companies that effectively outlawed big strikes and authorized the use of police, private police, National Guard and U.S. troops to violently smash those strikes. Between 1880 and 1930 courts issued 4,300 injunctions for big companies – all with the Supreme Court’s blessings.
Even the most basic legal rights and protections, supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, went right out the window during periods of war and crisis. During World War I, the Supreme Court upheld the arrest and imprisonment of those who dared speak out to oppose the war. In one famous case, the Supreme Court upheld the 10-year prison term against prominent labor leader and Socialist Party Presidential Candidate Eugene V. Debs, simply because he gave a speech opposing the war. Then, 25 years later, during World War II, the Supreme Court upheld the internment in concentration camps of 160,000 Japanese-Americans.
Of course, there have been certain exceptions, when the Supreme Court ruled the other way. In 1937, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court did not strike down the Social Security Act of 1935, which many had expected, given the court’s thoroughly reactionary record. But the ruling took place in the midst of a powerful workers’ movement, which included general strikes and sit-down strikes. The Roosevelt administration and many big capitalists sought to curtail these movements by granting some limited concessions to the elderly, unemployed and poor. So, when they agreed to grant the basic right not to starve to death for the first time in this country’s history – the U.S. Supreme Court did not oppose it. Above all, because Social Security was never a big protection.
Later, after a number of openly reactionary rulings during World War II and the McCarthy period, the Supreme Court finally reversed its open support of Jim Crow segregation, most dramatically in its 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. This reversal was not because the members of the court suddenly woke up and decided that segregation was “immoral.” No, what changed the court’s mind was a black mobilization that was gaining momentum, especially with the return of hundreds of thousands of black veterans following World War II and the Korean War. With the Brown decision, the Supreme Court began to pose as the black population’s long lost friend and ally. Of course, the Supreme Court also stated that segregation should be “ended” with “all deliberate speed,” which gave the legal opening to the segregationists to drag their feet for decades. Black people still could rely only on their own struggle and not on the Supreme Court.
On January 22, 1973, after a decade of vast social struggles, in which women played a key role, the Court finally issued Roe v. Wade – the ruling that has stood ever since as the symbol of women’s freedom, banning Texas, and de facto the other states and the federal government, from “unwarranted” intervention in a woman’s decision concerning abortion. Sweeping as the decision appeared to be, it also came with big limits. The Supreme Court ruled in such a way as to leave the legal door open for new limits on this basic right – and those began almost immediately. As soon as Roe v. Wade was issued, it was already being eroded – including in later decisions by the Supreme Court itself. Obviously, restricting the rights of working class women and the poor is a bedrock of capitalist domination of the society.
This proved once again that the Supreme Court does not guarantee any rights, that the only rights people have are those right they are ready to fight to defend.