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The Worst SCOTUS Decisions ever, part I

After my aside about Bush v. Gore a few days back, it occurred to me that many of the readers of my site might not have the faintest clue what I’m talking about when I reference Bad Decisions of the Supreme Court; or more likely even than that, might recognize names like Dred Scott but not remember what the case said. So, let’s get into a little bit of constitutional jurisprudence. The Supreme Court of the US (SCOTUS) is the highest court in the land, and although the Constitution doesn’t say so, it has since its early history used that status to judge the constitutionality of various laws passed by Congress or the states. Mixed in amongst the many correctly decided cases and landmark decisions that protected our rights and defended the Constitution are several cases that were decided wrongly, or are generally repugnant. In no particular order, some of the worst SCOTUS decisions ever (likely to be a recurring series):

  • Barron v. Baltimore (1833) Opinion by: John Marshall. This case determined that due to the “Congress shall make no law…” language at the beginning of the First Amendment, that the Bill of Rights only proscribes actions by Congress, and not the states. Why is this such a bad decision? Oh, this is an awful decision. First, amendments to the Constitution should be interpreted severally, and not as a whole; the bit about Congress only should apply to the first amendment. Second, this decision set back the cause of libertarians well over a century; as it held that states were free to abuse those rights set out in the bill of rights. Free speech? Forget that, it was Alabama infringing your rights, not Congress! Barron’s bad precedent began eroding with the passage of the 14th amendment, when it explicitly made equal protection a requirement of the states as well as federal government, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that most of the bill of rights was held to also apply to state governments.

  • Korematsu v. US (1944) Opinion by: Hugo Black. In Korematsu, the action of the military forcing Japanese Americans into internment camps was upheld by the SCOTUS, despite the obvious racism (i.e., the fact that Americans of German or Italian descent weren’t treated in a commensurate fashion). It’s a bad decision because the action in question violates equal protection on its face. Obviously.

  • Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) Opinion by: Roger Taney. Read the link for a full explanation; this was an extremely important case, at least for a while. Dred Scott was a slave who was taken to several free territories, who then sued under the terms of the Missouri Compromise for his freedom. He lost. It was a very bad decision because a) it determined that he wasn’t a person, meaning b) it determined that he was never a citizen, and thus had no basis to sue, and c) it was a political decision meant to shore up slavery as the nation’s mood was changing against it. This decision is often said to be one of the causes of the Civil War. This decision was overturned by the 14th amendment.

  • Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) Opinion by: Henry Brown. Plessy was a black man who sued under the equal protection clause against segregated railroad cars. He lost. Why was this bad? Well, this was the famous case that legalized the absurd doctrine of “Separate but Equal” as a way to circumvent the 14th amendment’s prescription of treating all of our citizens alike. Not until 1954, with Brown v. Board of Education would this shame be overturned. Great quote from the dissent, written by John Harlan:
    Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law...In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case...The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficient purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the Constitution.

And then there’s always Bush v. Gore, which was an awful decision because it was blatantly political, it violated stated majority doctrine (namely, to stay out of states’ affairs), and misappropriated Equal Protection arguments in a way never done before and wholly without precedent.
Countdown to School Continues

I am anxiously counting down until I begin Law School. After today, I have only eleven days of full time work left. I am very excited. As part of preparations I’ve been looking for a laptop computer. I like this one, but it’s pretty expensive. I have a penchant for gadgetry and the DVD player just makes me drool. I also want a GPS device and a wind-up flashlight, too. A webcam would be neat too, but I’d just use it to point at Relffits’s tuffet so she can be looked at during the day. That would be a pretty neat feature for this site, wouldn’t it? RelffitsCam?

With Bush’s right wing extremist actions undercutting his “I’m a uniter, not a divider” rhetoric, it makes me hope that John McCain will indeed run a splinter campaign in 2004. Even though McCain’s history shows that he’s as dirty as any other, at least he’d make Bush lose.


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