The Supreme Court Has Never Been a Level Playing Field

The Constitution deserves less respect. So does the Supreme Court. After reviewing the Court’s history as an impediment to progress, Ian Millhiser of Vox argues that “the judiciary is structurally biased in favor of conservatives:

The Court was the midwife of Jim Crow, the right hand of union busters, the dead hand of the Confederacy, and now is one of the chief architects of America’s democratic decline….

Decisions like Dobbs, which commandeer the bodies of millions of Americans — or decisions dismantling the Voting Rights Act — are entirely consistent with the Court’s history as defender of traditional hierarchies. [Justice Samuel] Alito is not an outlier in the Court’s history. He is quite representative of the justices who came before him.

In offering this critique of the Supreme Court, I will acknowledge that the Court’s history has not been an unbroken string of reactionary decisions dashing the hopes of liberalism. The Court’s marriage equality decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), for example, was a real victory for liberals.

But the Court’s ability to spearhead progressive change that does not, like marriage equality, enjoy broad popular support is quite limited. The seminal work warning of the heavy constraints on the Court’s ability to effect such change is Gerald Rosenberg’s The Hollow Hope, which argues that “courts lack the tools to develop policies and implement decisions [in favor of] significant social reform,” at least when those reforms aren’t also supported by elected officials.

This constraint on the judiciary’s ability to effect progressive change was most apparent in the aftermath of perhaps the Court’s most celebrated decision: Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Brown triggered “massive resistance” from white supremacists, especially in the Deep South. As Harvard legal historian Michael Klarman has documented, five years after Brown, only 40 of North Carolina’s 300,000 Black students attended an integrated school. Six years after Brown, only 42 of Nashville’s 12,000 Black students were integrated. A decade after Brown, only one in 85 African American students in the South attended an integrated school.

The courts simply lacked the institutional capacity to implement a school desegregation decision that Southern states were determined to resist. Among other things, when a school district refused to integrate, the only way to obtain a court order mandating desegregation was for a Black family to file a lawsuit against it. But terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan used the very real threat of violence to ensure few lawsuits were filed.

No one dared to file such a lawsuit seeking to integrate a Mississippi grade school, for example, until 1963.

Much of the South did not really begin to integrate until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which allowed the Justice Department to sue segregated schools, and which allowed federal officials to withhold funding from schools that refused to integrate. Within two years after this act became law, the number of Southern Black students attending integrated schools increased fivefold. By 1973, 90 percent of these students were desegregated.

Rosenberg’s most depressing conclusion is that, while liberal judges are severely constrained in their ability to effect progressive change, reactionary judges have tremendous ability to hold back such change. “Studies of the role of the courts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” Rosenberg writes, “ show that courts can effectively block significant social reform.”

And, while such reactionary decisions may eventually fall if there is a sustained political effort to overrule them, this process can take a very long time. Dagenhart [a decision that overruled Congress and allowed products made by child labor to cross statelines] was decided in 1918. The Court did not overrule it, and thus permit Congress to ban child labor, until 1941.

There are several structural reasons courts are a stronger ally for conservative movements than they are for progressive ones. For starters, in most constitutional cases courts only have the power to strike down a law — that is, to destroy an edifice that the legislature has built. The Supreme Court could repeal Obamacare, but it couldn’t have created the Affordable Care Act’s complex array of government-run marketplaces, subsidies, and mandates.

Litigation, in other words, is a far more potent tool in the hands of an anti-governmental movement than it is in the hands of one seeking to build a more robust regulatory and welfare state. It’s hard to cure poverty when your only tool is a bomb.

So, to summarize my argument, the judiciary, for reasons laid out by Rosenberg and others, structurally favors conservatives. People who want to dismantle government programs can accomplish far more, when they control the courts, than people who want to build up those programs. And, as the Court’s history shows, when conservatives do control the Court, they use their power to devastating effect.

This alone is a reason for liberals, small-d democrats, large-D Democrats, and marginalized groups more broadly, to take a more critical eye to the courts. And the judiciary’s structural conservatism is augmented by the fact that, in the United States, institutions like the Electoral College and Senate malapportionment give Republicans a huge leg up in the battle for control of the judiciary.

Simply put, the Supreme Court has not served the American people well. It’s time to start treating it that way.


A similar point can be made regarding the US Senate. Senators who want to leave everything as it is can use the filibuster to kill legislation much more easily than Senators can use it to pass legislation.