Tuesday, October 8, 2013

10 Worst Supreme Court Decisions

As the new Supreme Court term begins, I would like to focus on the teaching of Supreme Court cases. Traditionally, social studies teachers (especially AP Government teachers) cover a long list of "historic" Supreme Court cases that set or changed precedence. Often this is done by having students give presentations, or worse, a teacher lecturing about them. While some of the Court's decisions have been progressive (for example, Brown v. Board of Education), others have been incredibly regressive. An excellent inquiry-based activity would to have students work in groups to determine an answer to the following: "What were the 5 worst Supreme Court decisions in U.S. history?" Below is one example of a "Worst Supreme Court Decisions List." I argue that all students (and Americans) should know these cases.

10. Kelo v. City of New London (2005)

The City of New London, Connecticut, took private residences by eminent domain with the specific purpose of selling that land to a private developer who would then turn the plot into a Pfizer pharmaceutical company campus. Susette Kelo sued to protect the right to live in her pink New London home. However, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court sided with New London and all of the residents were forced to give up their homes. This was so controversial that one activist attempted to get the town of Weare, NH to take Justice Souter's home by eminent domain (he had voted with the majority) and convert it into a hotel, which would encourage economic development (the same reasoning in Kelo's case). The worst part of this case is that the plot was never developed, Pfizer left New London laying off over a thousand workers, and to this day it remains a vacant lot.

9. Buck v. Bell (1927)

As part of the eugenics movement, Virgina passed a law (consistent with many other state laws of the time) allowing the state to sterilize the mentally ill, feeble-minded, criminally-minded, or promiscuous. Carrie Buck was deemed "feeble-minded" and "promiscuous" and at the age of 18 was ordered to be sterilized. Buck' guardian appealed the decision and the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that it was in the state's interest to have Buck (and others) sterilized. Buck was then sterilized and sadly died a few years later of measles. This case had never been overturned and sterilization was practiced in Virgina until 1974.  

8. McDonald v. Chicago (2010)

Otis McDonald was a retired maintenance engineer, Chicago resident, and a victim of crime. McDonald legally owned shotguns, but he wanted to own a hand gun to better protect himself. Since 1984, the city of Chicago had a citywide handgun ban. In an unusual turn of precedence that long held that the 2nd Amendment did not protect an individual's right to own a firearm (United States v. Miller). This ruling has made it incredibly difficult for cities or states to curtain certain types of firearms. The dissenting opinion argued that Court was wrong to interpret the 2nd Amendment as protecting the right to own guns for self-defense. Rather, it was written to protect a "well-regulated militia."

7. Bush v. Gore (2000)

The Supreme Court in a 5 to 4 decision ruled that the Florida recount during the 2000 Presidential Election could be completed in the remaining time. Essentially, it decided that George Bush would become president. It may be the most politically partisan Court decision. Justice John Paul Stevens described the case as questioning the impartiality of the court and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg chose to omit "respectfully"in her statement "I dissent." It also may be the only case in history where the Supreme Court writes that this case does not apply to future cases.

6. Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886)

The state of California taxed fences owned by Southern Pacific Railway Company, but Southern Pacific asserted that the state constitution did not allow the respective tax (they argued the government could tax the land, but not the fences). In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme court ruled that the state did not have jurisdiction to tax fences. Although not explicitly stated, it is the foundation for the legal argument that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment also applies to corporations. This gave the same legal protection to corporations that citizens have.

5. Lochner v. New York (1905)

To protect workers, the state of New York limited bakers to a 10-hour work day and 60-hour work week. Some bakers sued, arguing this violated their constitutional rights of free labor. The Supreme Court ruled with the bakers creating the "liberty of contract" and preventing NY from limiting an employees hours. It not only created a legal precedence for limiting progressive-era work laws, but it also established an imbalance in the law favoring employers over employees that persists to this day.

4. Citizens United v. FEC (2010)

A group named Citizens United produced a film titled "Hillary the Movie" to run right before primary elections in the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primaries. In a case that essentially challenged a specific provision of the McCain-Feingold Act (a.k.a. Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act), which prevented advertising within 30 days of a federal election. In this ruling, the Supreme Court made a sweeping decision, reversing a century of campaign finance legislation and allowing corporations and labor unions have political free speech rights tantamount to the right of individual citizens, who under Buckley v. Valeo can spend unlimited amounts of their own money on electioneering through independent expenditures. Many have argued that this case went well beyond the purview of the original case and the conservative wing of the Court manufactured the decision for political reasons.

3. Korematsu v. United States (1944)

In 1942, 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast were unjustly imprisoned in concentration camps. 2/3rd of the internees were American citizens. Fred Korematsu, an American citizen of Japanese descent, refused to enter the prison camps. He was arrested and then forced into the camps. He sued on the grounds that his 5th Amendment rights were violated. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the need to protect against espionage (despite any actual instances of espionage) outweighed Korematsu's individual rights and the rights of imprisoned Japanese Americans. This decision created a precedence that an entire ethnic group can be imprisoned during war time. There was strong dissent by Justice Hugo Black, and although the Supreme Court has never overturned the case, it was the foundation for a 1983 federal court ruling in favor of Korematsu's challenge to the original 1944 decision.

2. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Homer Plessy was a civil rights activist who challenged the racial segregation laws related to trains in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was 1/8th Black (labeled "octoroon" at the time) and he decided to sit in the White car. He was subsequently arrested and the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In their decision, the Supreme Court ruled against Plessy and upheld racial segregation as constitutional. This case created the "separate but equal" doctrine that would be legal grounds for almost all future Jim Crow laws. This case was eventually overturned by Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregating children by race in public schools was "inherently unequal."

1. Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

Dred Scott was a slave from Missouri who was taken into Illinois, a free state, by his master. Dred Scott sued on the grounds that he was taken into free territory and should have all the legal protections of that state. However, the Taney Court ruled that Dred Scott has absolutely no legal rights, because he was a slave and slaves were not citizens and consequently have no standing in court. Referring to the language in the Declaration of Independence, Chief Justice Taney reasoned that "it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted [the Declaration of Independence]." This decision justified the stance of slaveholders and deeply angered abolitionists, ultimately contributing to a deepening of the rift that would result in the Civil War.

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