March 5, 2020 | Vol. 7 No. 6
(This column was originally published in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder on March 5, 2020)
A lot of us were raised to believe that the Supreme Court was the defender of the disadvantaged… There's a little bit of truth to that, but when you look at the large picture of what the Supreme Court has done historically, it's much more negative than that. They have consistently sided with the wealthy and the powerful.
- Adam Cohen
Among the most common talking points during this current election season is the need to remedy the rampant economic inequality that continues to plague our country. Just last fall, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Community Survey revealed that America’s wealth gap was now wider than it has been at any point since 1969.
To explain this trend, experts like Rutgers University economist William M. Rodgers III have pointed to factors such as globalization and the dwindling influence of labor unions in the United States. Rodgers also spoke directly to regressive tax laws that, in essence, force those at the lower end of the income spectrum to pay a much higher effective tax rate than do many higher income households and corporations.
A new book by journalist Adam Cohen addresses those kind of economic policies among a myriad of other judicial and legislative decisions to identify what he believes to be the central culprit when it comes to America’s soaring wealth and income gaps: The United States Supreme Court.
Now, for the most part—at least during the first two decades of the 21st century—when considering the partisan wrangling to control who sits on the federal bench, the issues that have taken center stage in the public sphere are marriage equality and abortion. As such, these two very high-profile debates have shaped a big part of the modern “culture war” in this nation.
And yet, there are other critical decisions made in our courts every day, often rather inconspicuously, that continue to significantly exacerbate racial and economic injustice.
In Cohen’s text, titled The Supreme Inequality: The Supreme Court’s Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust America, he shines a spotlight on how our highest court has adversely affected public education, worker’s rights, criminal justice, fair wages, affordable housing, access to health care, corporate regulation, and efforts toward campaign finance reform among many other matters.
It’s no secret that during the Supreme Court’s first 165 years or so, it ferociously maintained the racial order that had long been set here in America. One only need look at Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857 or Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 for evidence of that.
Nonetheless, Cohen suggests that there was real hope for a better America during the 16-year tenure of Chief Justice Earl Warren, an era of the court that was jump-started by the landmark decision handed down in Brown v. Board of Education and culminated in the appointment of Thurgood Marshall as associate justice.
Regrettably, according to Cohen, all of the progress made by the court during the civil rights era began to be dismantled when St. Paul native Warren Berger succeeded Warren as chief justice in 1969. Subsequently, the next 50 years of Supreme Court decisions have brought us to where we are today—a nation of haves and have nots.
As NPR’s Martha Ann Toll states in her review of Cohen’s book, "America could have top-notch, racially integrated schools, a criminal justice system that hadn’t ballooned to the world’s largest by locking up generations of Black and Brown people, a political system that wasn’t suffocating in money, and a legal system that valued individuals over big business."
But alas, so many of the hopes and promises that were envisioned in the 1950s and 1960s seem to have gone for naught.
Moreover, decades of precedent in the court system face a dubious future. The Fair Housing Act of 1968, voting rights, and other civil rights legislation have been gutted and are at risk of being eliminated altogether.
It seems that as long as the Supreme Court holds profit and property above people, our democracy is under threat. That is, if we even have a democracy any more. Many have argued, quite eloquently mind you, that we do not.