The decisions by the Supreme Court on Monday guarantee that John Roberts will go down as one of the worst Chief Justices in American history. His leadership of the 5-4 Republican majority has made its message clear: corporations and the interests of the wealthy and powerful are more important than the rights of the individual, the worker, even the patient.
Before we get into the specifics of the decisions yesterday, let me just remind you, dear reader, of what this court has done prior. In Citizens United (2010) and McCutcheon (2014), the court dismantled over a hundred years of state and federal precedent limiting the amount of money that can be used to influence elections. In addition, the court has limited class actions lawsuits, restricted the ability of unions to collect dues and organize, and even went so far as to invalidate a major part of the Voting Rights Act. Overall, this court has sided with corporate power and special interests over the rights of ordinary citizens, more than any court since World War II. Indeed, the two most recent Bush appointees, Roberts and Alito, vote in favor of business over 60% of the time.
Oh, and let’s not forget some of the precedents and statements handed down on the way to making these decisions. First, this court firmly holds that “corporations are people” and that “money is speech.” In Citizens United, the Roberts’ Court went even further, making the amazingly ridiculous claim that money spent to influence elections did not give rise to corruption, or even the appearance of corruption; the court then ignored a Montana challenge to the decision, the state having passed an anti-corruption law in 1912 because copper baron W.A. Clark BRIBED his way to the Senate by handing out thousands of dollars to state representatives right outside the legislature. But John Roberts says that money spent on politics doesn’t lead to corruption, so never mind the evidence.
However, the fun doesn’t end there. When the court struck down section four of the Voting Rights Act, the justification was that racism is over—it doesn’t exist anymore, just like political corruption. Really? How can people serving on the highest court in the land could be so naïve and foolish, declaring that racism and corruption don’t exist by fiat, and then using that flimsy logic to overturn years upon years of established precedent? It’s unconscionable.
Anyway, let’s get to Monday’s Hobby Lobby decision. In it, the conservative 5-4 majority make the claim that “closely held corporations” can have religious beliefs, and that those beliefs are protected under the First Amendment. Specifically, the ruling allows Hobby Lobby to deny their female workers contraception, because it supposedly violates their faith, even though the company’s “retirement fund invests in a wide variety of companies producing abortion and contraception related products.”
Implications? There are thousands. First, does this overturn the decision Antonin Scalia wrote in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), when he stated that two Native Americans couldn’t receive unemployment benefits because they had possessed peyote, despite their claim that it was a part of their religious practices? And if not, why: because Hobby Lobby is Christian and these men were not?
Aside from Scalia’s hypocrisy, the decision is deeply troubling. Essentially, this opens the door for all kinds of challenges to state and federal laws on the basis of religious belief. For example, if Hobby Lobby doesn’t have to provide birth control on the basis of their faith, why should they have to employ gays? Or blacks? This may sound absurd, but the problem with this decision, as justice Ginsberg points out, is that courts and judges are now faced with determining what kinds of religious objections should allow corporations to opt out of state and federal laws, and which shouldn’t.
But Hobby Lobby wasn’t the only bad decision that came out on Monday. The other decision, Harris v. Quinn, held that partial state employees can’t be compelled to pay union dues or join a union. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem so bad—why, after all, should people have to join a union if they don’t want to?
Because the union bargains directly for that employee’s salary and benefits. Essentially, this decision allows workers who opt out of union membership and dues to be freeloaders: they get something without having to pay for it. Is that fair? Most certainly not, which is precisely why a previous ruling, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), found that states could compel public employees to join a union. While the Roberts’ Court stopped short of completely reversing that precedent (though Alito desperately wanted to), it poured the foundation for businesses and corporations to start chipping away at the ability of labor to organize and collect union dues.
That’s bad. I know there’s a lot of anti-union sentiment in this nation, but those feelings are more due to a successful campaign of propaganda and misinformation by big business than anything else. Sure, in the past there’s been instances of union corruption or cases where incompetent workers are protected, but malfeasance and in-dealing can occur in any organization; after all, there are plenty of examples of corporations and businesses acting illegally in ways that were extremely damaging to the nation. Remember the Wall Street crash of 2008 anyone?
But more to the point, unions have accomplished so much to be thankful for: an eight-hour workday, a two-day weekend, paid vacation, the minimum wage, healthcare and retirement benefits, child labor laws, overtime pay, etc. These are benefits every American worker enjoys, not just those who belong to unions.
And then there’s the issue of wages. As a basic function, unions protect and bargain for higher wages. What’s more, as the power of unions has declined, the average wage for U.S. workers has stagnated. Consider this: between 1973 and 2007, union membership in the private sector dropped from 34% to 8% among men, and from 16% to 6% among women. During that time, wage inequality increased “by more than 40%.” Given the current state of wage and wealth inequality in the U.S., anything that hurts unions is not good news for the vast majority of Americans who work for a living, and by preventing unions from collecting dues from people who directly benefit from collective bargaining, the Supreme Court’s Republican 5-4 majority has done just that.
Overall, the Roberts’ Court has been about as activist and extreme as it gets. When he came in, Roberts made the case that he wouldn’t overturn precedent, famously saying that he saw his job as similar to that of an umpire, calling balls and strikes. Instead, what he’s done is completely redefine the strike zone. Time and again, his court has reversed long standing precedent, especially if it helps corporations, the wealthy, the powerful, and/or the Republican Party.
It’s awful, and yet at the same time, another call to action. Again, I urge you, sign the petition at movetoamend.org to support a Constitutional Amendment that declares that corporations are not people, that money is not speech, and that Congress should have the power to set rules for campaign and election spending. In addition, register to vote—only the President can appoint Supreme Court justices, but Congress can impeach them, as they should with justices Scalia and Thomas, who make no bones about their partisanship and partiality by attending Tea Party rallies and Koch Brothers events.
The majority of Americans don’t agree with these decisions, but remember, if we aren’t active, if we don’t vote, then we don’t matter.