No, that is not a nightclub comedian’s joke. It’s a searing truth.
Lawyers are legalistic rather than humanistic. They are narrow-minded rather than broad-minded. They “follow the law” of yesteryear rather than meet the problems of today.
They favor corporations rather than consumers and the working class. They tend to be conservative.
Most federal judges are rich. In two terms President Reagan appointed 279 U.S. judges. The majority had a net worth of $400,000. One fifth of them were millionaires. Such judges are unlikely to rule for ordinary folks.
Most justices have been mediocrities. President Washington named 10 justices, “a thoroughly undistinguished lot,” Peter Irons writes in “A People’s History of the Supreme Court.”
President Truman named three former Senate buddies who were out of their depth on the court. President Kennedy, so-called liberal, appointed a conservative to the court simply because he was his Colorado campaign manager.
Yet such people decide the law of the land. As Chief Justice Charles Hughes knew so well: “The Constitution is what the judges say it is.” So often what the justices say it is has been bad.
The great socialist leader Eugene Debs pointed out that a member of the working class has never been on the federal bench let alone on the august Supreme Court.
Most justices have been retrograde. They retarded progress rather than stretched the legal frontiers. Corporations have the money, working people do not. Lawyers go where the money is.
Chief Justice John Roberts was a corporate lawyer in Washington who made $1 million a year. Naturally his Supreme Court became a Corporate Court.
In the 2009-2010 term the Roberts Court took the side of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 13 out of 16 cases, including the infamous Citizens United decision declaring money speech and corporations people.
The New Yorker had wonderful cartoon about Citizen United. Paraphrasing a Shylock line from “Merchant of Venice,” a lawyer pleads before the justices: “If you prick a corporation, does it not bleed? If you tickle it, does it not laugh? If you poison it, does it not die?”
In the 2010-2011 term the Roberts Court cut down an exemplary Arizona statute that leveled the financial playing field, rejected a suit by 1.6 million women against a woefully discriminatory Wal-Mart, shielded the makers of drugs from lawsuits by patients who had been harmed and smothered lawsuits against mutual fund cheaters and liars.
The Supreme Court has had 112 justices, a mere 15 or so liberal to progressive.
Among them were justices like Louis Brandeis (1916-1939), Oliver Wendell Holmes (1902-1932), Hugo Black (1937-1971), William Douglas (1939-1975), Frank Murphy (1940-1949), Robert Jackson (1941-1954), Earl Warren (1953-1969), William Brennan (1956-1990), Thurgood Marshall (1967-1991) and John Paul Stevens (1975-2010).
Two cases illustrate the Supreme Court’s historic concern for property and conservative causes, one from the mid-19th century and one from the dawn of the 21st.
Perhaps the worst decision the Supreme Court ever handed down was Dred Scott in 1857, upholding the obnoxious Fugitive Slave Act. The language of Chief Justice Roger Taney was atrocious coming from anyone let alone a member of the Supreme Court.
Blacks were “an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race,” Taney wrote. “They had no rights that the white man was bound to respect. The Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his own benefit.”
They were not citizens and could not claim the “rights and privileges” of citizenship even if their masters took them to free states, Taney concluded.
Just as bad as Dred Scott, the Supreme Court in 2000 declared G.W. Bush president although Al Gore got 543,895 more popular votes. Just five people out of 300 million Americans engineered the coup.
The court stopped the vote count in Florida in defiance of its usual deference to states’ rights.
Vincent Bugliosi in The Nation wrote that the court “committed one of the biggest and most serious crimes that the nation has ever seen--pure and simple theft of the presidency.”
Justices are adept at making up reasons to support their predilections. But in the Bush-Gore case the sophistry was incredible. The majority, consisting of five Republicans, contrived a partisan decision.
It gave no rationale, no analysis. The unsigned opinion was convoluted and opaque.
The Supreme Court so often decides that the law of the land is Republican law. It remakes the Constitution to fit its far-right prejudices.
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.