In 1850 the Congress and the President adopted a series of bills that they thought would end the sectional division in the country over the slavery issue. It didn’t, it did delay what now appears to have been an inevitable Civil War for ten years and probably bought the North the time it needed to develop strong enough to win that conflict. Despite what the legislators and President thought, their best efforts were undermined by a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1856 known as the Dred Scott Decision. That infamous decision ruled that a class of people could never be considered citizens of the United States nor have any rights under the laws and constitution of the nation because they had black skin. That decision made the Civil War inevitable upon the election of President who opposed the expansion of slavery; a Civil War with over 600,000 dead and more wounded.
After ten years of an effort by the Congress and the President to assure the rights of the newly freed slaves and enforce amendments to the constitution that fully undid the Dred Scott Decision, the country settled for a society where all were free but only some (white) had rights. In 1896 the Supreme Court of the United States issued a second outrageous ruling Plessy v. Ferguson. That decision accepted the right to citizenship of ex-slaves but held that black and white citizens could be separated and treated equally. It led to Jim Crow segregation and unequal schools, libraries, wash rooms, public fountains, parks etc. It took almost 60 years for the Supreme Court to reverse that decision and declare unanimously that separate but equal was inherently unequal and therefore a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection of the laws clause.
It took another dozen years for the country to come to grips with that 1954 decision Brown v. Bd.. of Education. And, in 1964 and 1965 the people of the country and the President from the South, with a preacher from Alabama and a Senator from Illinois succeeded in enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Some of those provisions led to immediate desegregation of public facilities; and, the Voting Rights Act led to representation at the county, state and federal level for the black citizens of many states. Every President since Johnson and every Congress through 2006 has renewed the Voting Rights Act.
Now the Supreme Court of the United States, in a 5-4 decision, decides that section 4 of the Voting Rights Act which sets the trigger for the implementation of Section 5 is unconstitutional. It is Section 5 that has made the Voting Rights Act a success. It is Section 5 that required per-approval by the Justice Department if covered jurisdictions want to make changes in their election laws. And, it is the means by which the federal government prevents encroachments on the rights of our citizens in the covered states. If there is a weakness in the Voting Rights Act it is that pre-clearance should apply to all the states.
The Supreme Court is the most undemocratic branch of our government. The Justices are appointed for life by an indirectly elected President (read Electoral College) and a non-representative Senate (read 2 per state). It has a history of bowing to the powerful interests that rule our economy (witness the attempts to gut the New Deal reforms). And now in Shelby v Holder it guts the Voting Rights Act.
We are at a crossroads in America. One road leads to an America with a large underclass of undocumented non-citizens who will provide a cheap labor force for the industrial capitalists; a debt-burdened graduate student population that will live in apartments (read dollars for landlords and real estate interests) as they can’t afford their own homes; and a poor and black population whose voices at the ballot box will be stifled. The other road leads to the America that the 19th and 20th centuries progressed towards: a Nation where all: men and women, young and old, rich and poor, white and black and Latino, gay and straight, enjoyed the promise of the American Dream - the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and to live one's life with dignity.
Twice the Supreme Court has been dangerously wrong on the issue of race and equality. Now it is wrong a third time. Three strikes and you’re out. It is time to begin a crusade for Democracy in America. It is time to abolish the Electoral College; reform the Congress(and particularly the Senate) and establish a Supreme Court with Justices serving ten-year terms. It is time to enhance and enshrine popular democracy in the United States. We can keep the Republic that Benjamin Franklin said was being left to us rather than a Monarchy -- and we don’t want an Oligarchy or a Plutocracy either.
25 June 2013