The worst decision the Supreme Court ever made was Dred Scott in 1857, upholding the obnoxious Fugitive Slave Act. The language of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney was atrocious coming from anyone—let alone a member of the Supreme Court. It was beyond racism, totally devoid of humanity.
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.” Moreover: “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.
In the second worst ruling, the Supreme Court in 2000 declared G.W. Bush president although Al Gore got 543,895 more votes. Just five people out of 280 million Americans engineered the coup. The court stopped the vote count in Florida, in defiance of their usual deference to states’ rights, and gave Bush the Electoral College victory.
Vincent Bugliosi in The Nation wrote angrily 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.” The Felonious Five stole the election under the color of law.
Justices are adept at making up reasons to support their predilections. But in this case, the sophistry was incredible. The five, all Republicans, rendered a totally partisan decision. It gave no rationale, no analysis. It did not cite a single case or precedent. It suppressed the facts. The unsigned opinion was convoluted and opaque. Then, like the thieves they were, the unjust justices vanished shamefully into the night.
In the third worse decision, Citizens United (2010), the court reaffirmed earlier declarations that money is speech.
Democracy had already been corrupted with legalized bribery in the form of campaign contributions. But with Citizens United, the New York Times exploded: “The Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the Robber Baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court’s majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to win elections.”
Historian Howard Zinn put the matter in perspective: “No one can stop us from getting on a soapbox and speaking. We might reach 100 people that way. But if we were Proctor and Gamble, which makes the soapbox, we could buy prime time for TV commercials and buy full-page ads in newspapers, reaching several million. How much freedom we have depends on how much money we have.”
In the fourth worse ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the court upheld Southern apartheid, declaring separate black and white facilities constitutional. Justice Harlan I dissented, calling the Constitution color-blind. It took 58 years for the Supreme Court to declare Harlan right.
The fifth worse decision was Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886). The court declared that corporations were people and entitled to constitutional rights even though the preamble of the Constitution starts with “we the people.”
The sixth worst ruling, Lochner v. New York (1905), reversed a legislative limit of a 10-hour work day and 60-hour work week for bakers. Justice Rufus Peckham, writing for a 5-4 majority, outrageously declared that such statutes “limiting the hours in which grown and intelligent men may labor to earn their living are mere meddlesome interference with the rights of the individual.”
Justice Harlan I dissented, rightly complaining that employer and employee are not on equal footing. Bosses have the upper hand. Always have. Always will.
In another Lochner dissent, Holmes pointed out: “This case is decided on an economic theory that a large part of the country does not entertain. The 14th Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics.” (Spencer was a Social Darwinist.)
In the seventh worst ruling, the Supreme Court in 2000 upheld the right of Big Tobacco to advertise cigarettes, a product that kills 500,000 Americans yearly. Corporate freedom and the merchants of death prevailed over the health of Americans.
Cigarettes are a drug. Federal Judge Jerome Frank, dissenting in a 1941 case, wrote: “Such men as Paine, Milton and Jefferson were not fighting for the right to peddle commercial advertising.” True. But the Supreme Court is often blind to truth.
In the eighth worst decision, the Supreme Court in 1895 struck down a congressional income tax law. The vote was 5-4, five wealthy justices killing it as a scholar’s chart demonstrated.
In the ninth worse ruling, the court in Schenck (1919) ruled that harmless leaflets were a “clear and present danger” to national security under the 1917 Espionage Act. The absurdity was manifest. Yet ever since the court nearly always has taken the side of so-called national security.
Indeed, the Obama administration, far from being receptive to whistle-blowers as it promised in 2008, is still using the bogus Espionage Act to prosecute and persecute leakers like Pfc. Bradley Manning.
The U.S. government detests leakers because they reveal embarrassing truths. That’s why federal prosecutors have drawn up a sealed indictment—secret charges—against Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder.
David Carr, media critic of the New York Times, calls the Espionage Act an “ad hoc Official Secrets Act, which is not a law that has ever found traction in America. The people’s right to know is viewed as superceding the government’s right to hide its business.”
In the 10th worse decision, Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923), the court invalidated a minimum wage for women workers in the District of Columbia. Justice George Sutherland, one of the Four Horseman of Reaction writing for the majority, said it was “simply and exclusively a price-fixing law.” In dissent, Chief Justice William Taft pointed out that employees “are particularly subject to the overreaching of the harsh and greedy employer."
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