John Whitehead's Commentary
The People vs. the Police State: The Struggle for Justice in the Supreme Court
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The untimely death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has predictably created a political firestorm.
Republicans and Democrats, eager to take advantage of an opening on the Supreme Court, have been quick to advance their ideas about Scalia’s replacement. This is just the beginning of the furor over who gets to appoint the next U.S. Supreme Court justice (President Obama or his successor), when (as soon as Obama chooses or as long as Congress can delay), how (whether by way of a recess appointment or while Congress is in session), and where any judicial nominee will stand on the hot-button political issues of our day (same-sex marriage, Obamacare, immigration, the environment, and abortion).
This is yet another spectacle, not unlike the carnival-like antics of the presidential candidates, to create division, dissension and discord and distract the populace from the nation’s steady march towards totalitarianism.
Not to worry. This is a done deal. There are no surprises awaiting us.
We may not know the gender, the orientation, the politics, or the ethnicity of Justice Scalia’s replacement, but those things are relatively unimportant in the larger scheme of things.
The powers-that-be have already rigged the system. They—the corporations, the military industrial complex, the surveillance state, the monied elite, etc.—will not allow anyone to be appointed to the Supreme Court who will dial back the police state. They will not tolerate anyone who will undermine their policies, threaten their profit margins, or overturn their apple cart.
Scalia’s replacement will be safe (i.e., palatable enough to withstand Congress’ partisan wrangling), reliable and most important of all, an extension of the American police state.
With the old order dying off or advancing into old age rapidly, we’ve arrived at a pivotal point in the makeup of the Supreme Court. With every vacant seat on the Court and in key judgeships around the country, we are witnessing a transformation of the courts into pallid, legalistic bureaucracies governed by a new breed of judges who have been careful to refrain from saying, doing or writing anything that might compromise their future ambitions.
Today, the judges most likely to get appointed today are well-heeled, well-educated (all of them attended either Yale or Harvard law schools) blank slates who have traveled a well-worn path from an elite law school to a prestigious judicial clerkship and then a pivotal federal judgeship. Long gone are the days when lawyers without judicial experience such as Earl Warren, William Rehnquist, Felix Frankfurter, and Louis Brandeis could be appointed to the Supreme Court.
As Supreme Court correspondent Dahlia Lithwick points out, “a selection process that discourages political or advocacy experience and reduces the path to the Supreme Court to a funnel” results in “perfect judicial thoroughbreds who have spent their entire adulthoods on the same lofty, narrow trajectory.”
In other words, it really doesn’t matter whether a Republican or Democratic president appoints the next Supreme Court justice, because they will all look alike (in terms of their educational and professional background) and sound alike (they are primarily advocates for the government).
Given the turbulence of our age, with its police overreach, military training drills on American soil, domestic surveillance, SWAT team raids, asset forfeiture, wrongful convictions, and corporate corruption, the need for a guardian of the people’s rights has never been greater.
Unfortunately, as I document in Battlefield America: The War on the American People, what we have been saddled with instead are government courts dominated by technicians and statists who march in lockstep with the American police state.
This is true at all levels of the judiciary.
Thus, while what the nation needs is a constitutionalist, what we will get is a technician.
It’s an important distinction.
A legal constitutionalist believes that the authority of government derives from and is limited by a body of fundamental law (the Constitution) and strives to hold the government accountable to abiding by the Constitution. A judge of this order will uphold the rights of the citizenry in the face of government abuses.
Justice William O. Douglas, who served on the Supreme Court for 36 years, was such a constitutionalist. He believed that the “Constitution is not neutral. It was designed to take the government off the backs of the people.” Considered the most “committed civil libertarian ever to sit on the court,” Douglas was frequently controversial and far from perfect (he was part of a 6-3 majority in Korematsu vs. United States that supported the government’s internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II). Even so, his warnings against a domineering, suspicious, totalitarian, police-driven surveillance state resonate still today.
A legal technician, on the other hand, is an arbitrator of the government’s plethora of laws whose priority is maintaining order and preserving government power. As such, these judicial technicians are deferential to authority, whether government or business, and focused on reconciling the massive number of laws handed down by the government.
John Roberts who joined the Supreme Court in 2005 as Chief Justice is a prime example of a legal technician. His view that the “role of the judge is limited…to decide the cases before them” speaks to a mindset that places the judge in the position of a referee. As USA Today observes, “Roberts’ tenure has been marked by an incremental approach to decision-making — issuing narrow rather than bold rulings that have the inevitable effect of bringing the same issues back to the high court again and again.”
Roberts’ approach to matters of law and justice can best be understood by a case dating back to his years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The case involved a 12-year-old black girl who was handcuffed, searched and arrested by police—all for eating a single French fry in violation of a ban on food in the D.C. metro station. Despite Roberts’ ability to recognize the harshness of the treatment meted out to Ansche Hedgepeth for such a minor violation—the little girl was transported in the windowless rear compartment of a police vehicle to a juvenile processing center, where she was booked, fingerprinted, and detained for three hours, and was “frightened, embarrassed, and crying throughout the ordeal”—Roberts ruled that the girl’s constitutional rights had not been violated in any way.
This is not justice meted out by a constitutionalist.
This is how a technician rules, according to the inflexible letter of the law.
Circuit Judge Sri Srinivasan of the DC Court of Appeals, who is rumored to be a favorite pick for Scalia’s spot on the court, is another such technician. When asked to strike down a 60-year-old ban on expressive activities in front of the Supreme Court Plaza, Srinivasan turned a blind eye to the First Amendment. (Ironically, the Supreme Court must now decide whether to declare its own free speech ban unconstitutional.)
By ruling in favor of the ban, Srinivasan also affirmed that police were correct to arrest an African-American protester who was standing silently in front of the Supreme Court wearing a sign protesting the police state on a snowy day when no one was on the plaza except him.
Srinivasan’s rationale? “Allowing demonstrations directed at the Court, on the Court’s own front terrace, would tend to yield the opposite impression: that of a Court engaged with — and potentially vulnerable to — outside entreaties by the public.”
This view of the Supreme Court as an entity that must be sheltered from select outside influences—for example, the views of the citizenry—is shared by the members of the Court itself to a certain extent. As Lithwick points out:
“The Court has become worryingly cloistered, even for a famously cloistered institution… today’s justices filter out anything that might challenge their perspectives. Antonin Scalia won’t read newspapers that conflict with his views and claims to often get very little from amicus briefs. John Roberts has said that he doesn’t believe that most law-review articles—where legal scholars advance new thinking on contemporary problems—are relevant to the justices’ work. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Scalia’s opera-going buddy, increasingly seems to revel in, rather than downplay, her status as a liberal icon. Kennedy spends recesses guest-teaching law school courses in Salzburg.”
Are you getting the picture yet?
The members of the Supreme Court are part of a ruling aristocracy composed of men and women who primarily come from privileged backgrounds and who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
These justices, all of whom are millionaires in their own rights, circulate among an elite, privileged class of individuals, attending exclusive events at private resorts orchestrated by billionaire oil barons, traveling on the private jets of billionaires, and delivering paid speeches in far-flung locales such as Berlin, London and Zurich.
When you’re cocooned within the rarefied, elitist circles in which most of the judiciary operate, it can be difficult to see the humanity behind the facts of a case, let alone identify with the terror and uncertainty that most people feel when heavily armed government agents invade their homes, or subject them to a virtual strip search, or taser them into submission.
If you’ve never had to worry about police erroneously crashing through your door in the dead of night, then it might not be a hardship to rule as the Court did in Kentucky v. King that police should have greater leeway to break into homes or apartments without a warrant.
If you have no fear of ever being strip searched yourself, it would be easy to suggest as the Court did in Florence v. Burlington that it’s more important to make life easier for overworked jail officials than protect Americans from debasing strip searches.
And if you have never had to submit to anyone else’s authority—especially a militarized police officer with no knowledge of the Constitution’s prohibitions against excessive force, warrantless searches and illegal seizures, then you would understandably give police the benefit of the doubt as the Court did in Brooks v. City of Seattle, when they let stand a ruling that police officers who had clearly used excessive force when they repeatedly tasered a pregnant woman during a routine traffic stop were granted immunity from prosecution.
Likewise, if you’re not able to understand what it’s like to be one of the “little guys,” afraid to lose your home because some local government wants to commandeer it and sell it to a larger developer for profit, it would be relatively easy to rule, as the Supreme Court did in Kelo v. New London, that the government is within its right to do so.
Now do you understand why the Supreme Court’s decisions in recent years, which have run the gamut from suppressing free speech activities and justifying suspicionless strip searches to warrantless home invasions and conferring constitutional rights on corporations, while denying them to citizens, have been characterized most often by an abject deference to government authority, military and corporate interests?
They no longer work for us. They no longer represent us. They can no longer relate to our suffering.
In the same way that the Legislative Branch, having been co-opted by lobbyists, special interests, and the corporate elite, has ceased to function as a vital check on abuses by the other two branches of government, the Judicial Branch has also become part of the same self-serving bureaucracy.
Sound judgment, compassion and justice have taken a back seat to legalism, statism and elitism.
Preserving the rights of the people has been deprioritized and made to play second fiddle to both governmental and corporate interests.
In the case of the People vs. the Police State, the ruling is 9-0 against us.
So where does that leave us?
The Supreme Court of old is gone, if not for good then at least for now.
It will be a long time before we have another court such as the Warren Court (1953-1969), when Earl Warren served alongside such luminaries as William J. Brennan, Jr., William O. Douglas, Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter and Thurgood Marshall.
The Warren Court handed down rulings that were instrumental in shoring up critical legal safeguards against government abuse and discrimination. Without the Warren Court, there would be no Miranda warnings, no desegregation of the schools and no civil rights protections for indigents.
Yet more than any single ruling, what Warren and his colleagues did best was embody what the Supreme Court should always be—an institution established to intervene and protect the people against the government and its agents when they overstep their bounds.
That is no longer the case.
We can no longer depend on the federal courts to protect us against the government. They are the government.
Yet as is the case with most things, the solution is far simpler and at the same time more complicated than space allows, but it starts with local action—local change—and local justice. If you want a revolution, start small, in your own backyard, and the impact will trickle up.
If you don’t like the way justice is being meted out in America, then start demanding justice in your own hometown, before your local judges. Serve on juries, nullify laws that are egregious, picket in front of the courthouse, vote out judges (and prosecutors) who aren’t practicing what the Constitution preaches, encourage your local newspapers to report on cases happening in your town, educate yourself about your rights, and make sure your local judges understand that they work for you and are not to be extensions of the police, prosecutors and politicians.
This is the only way we will ever have any hope of pushing back against the police state.