The Supreme Court is going to have a full docket this year. With everything from the controversial Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) to race conscious university admissions policies on the docket, it will continue to determine the course of policy in America.
Let’s look back at some of the worst decisions in history, and hope the nation’s highest court can avoid repeating these devastating blows to justice.
1. Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857):
In any summation of the worst Supreme Court rulings in history, Dred Scott must come first.
Scott, an African American born in the United States, had lived as a slave in both free and slave states. When he tried to sue for his family’s freedom, and was turned down, he took his case to federal court.
In one of the most infamous cases in history, the Court ruled Scott could not sue because people of African descent were not protected by the Constitution and not U.S. citizens. In one part of the opinion, Chief Justice Taney goes so far as to say blacks were never thought of as any more than possessions:
"The unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property."
2. Muller v. Oregon (1908):
Muller took the “nanny state” concept literally. In 1903, Oregon enacted a statute regulating the working hours of women, which stated:
" ... no female [shall] be employed in any mechanical establishment, or factory, or laundry in this state more than ten hours during any one day."
In September 1905 one Mrs. E. Gotcher dared cross that line, and punishment was swift. The owner of the Grand Laundry, where she worked, was charged and convicted of breaking the law and a misdemeanor. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court upheld the statute and essentially took government ownership of women and their actions:
"The physical wellbeing of women becomes an object of public interest and care in order to preserve the strength of the race."
Yes, you read that right. In order to preserve the strength of the race, the state will decide how many hours women are allowed to work. The Court here considers women as little more than a public resource, which is, interestingly enough, exactly what the Nazis did.
3. Ex Parte Quirin (1942):
Rushing things can have unintended, and deadly, consequences. On June 13th, 1942, four German-American saboteurs rowed ashore in Long Island, New York. Their four other counterparts rowed ashore shortly afterward with a plan to destroy several aluminum factories on the East Coast. Unfortunately for their Nazi commanders, most of the men just wanted to go back to the U.S. Two weeks later, two of them eventually turned the entire group in to the FBI.
When the case got to the Supreme Court, Roosevelt had to call the Court back into session. When the Court convened, they blasted out a decision in a record three days and then adjourned without writing an accompanying opinion.
Six of the eight men were immediately executed by President Roosevelt. Yet, when the Supreme Court convened to write the opinion, they found their original decision was very, very wrong. Justice Black even went so far as to say he felt as if he were involved in a meat market slaughtering cattle.
4. Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004):
When Rand Paul filibustered the Senate for 13 hours Wednesday, he took a stand against the indefinite detention of Americans on U.S. soil. Hamdi was the reason such detention was even being discussed. Yaser Hamdi was a relief worker in Afghanistan, who was captured by the Afghan Northern Alliance, handed over to the U.S., and subsequently detained in Guantanamo Bay. He claimed he should get habeas corpus, or the right to be told why one is being held, and the case reached the Supreme Court.
In an 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court said Hamdi couldn't be detained without habeas corpus as an American citizen, but that wasn't the dangerous part of this ruling.
Instead, the danger is within the hearing itself, where Supreme Court willfully avoided a key argument.
The United States Government claimed they could detain U.S. citizens as enemy combatants under the Authorization for Use of Military Force and Article II of the Constitution. The Supreme Court agreed with one point, and ignored the other.
Because the Supreme Court ignored the Article II argument, and therefore left that point uncontested, Attorney General Eric Holder can now claim in a whitepaper that "The U.S. citizenship of a leader of al-Qa’ida or its associated forces, however, does not give that person constitutional immunity from attack."
In layman’s terms, if you are found to be a member of "associated forces" (a term yet to be defined) of Al-Qaeda, you can be detained and executed. Your U.S. citizenship is no longer a "get out of assassination free card."
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. As the U.S. Supreme Court looks toward another full docket this year, each Justice must look not only to the Court’s successes, but also to its failures and embarrassments.
If they do not, history will repeat itself ... with potentially devastating consequences.