Our third branch needs some pruning: Why social workers should be very worried about the Supreme Court

It’s the first Monday in October.


Yes, folks, the U.S. Supreme Court session starts today.

And, the truth is, our country could be in a worse position, on many of the core social justice issues that matter to social workers and those we serve, when they finish the term.

There’s some scary stuff happening in the Supreme Court these days, and, while I know that even keeping track of legislative activity requires a lot of our very limited time, social workers need to understand the implications of what these nine men and women (many more men, of course, than women) do in that beautiful building in Washington, DC.

The always-awesome Alliance for Justice has produced two excellent reports analyzing recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, not only for their own, individual impact on the civil rights and critical liberties afforded to Americans, but also for the trends they represent, and what this trajectory within the judiciary might mean for some of the still-unresolved legal questions of our time.

While the campaign finance ruling earlier this year attracted widespread attention (and much criticism, but, then, they don’t have to pay attention to that (reason #1001 why I SO want to be on the Supreme Court)), AFJ outlines several other broad patterns in decisions that should alarm, and even outrage, those of us committed to social justice and fervently believing in the court as an essential part of the governmental system which should deliver it.

  • The U.S. Supreme Court is accepting more business-related cases than in previous terms, and siding more with corporate interests, giving the U.S. Chamber of Commerce its greatest winning percentage in decades.
  • Several decisions have restricted the reach of environmental legislation, undoing some legislative attempts to address the most concerning aspects of environmental degradation.
  • In another pro-corporate set of decisions, the Court opened the door for renewed age and sex discrimination in the workplace, which obviously stands in stark contrast to social work’s fervent opposition to discriminatory practices.
  • In the case that bothers me the most, both because of what it suggests about the vulnerability of some of our most vaunted judicial victories and because of the sheer tragedy of it, in 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court essentially overturned Brown v. Board of Education, ruling that separate could, in fact, be equal, and that voluntary school desegregation plans, on the other hand, were not.

    It’s a good thing, I still believe, that there’s no real way to directly pressure U.S. Supreme Court justices to see issues “our” way, or to be more responsive to public concerns about such issues as women’s rights and environmental protection. If the Supreme Court had listened to the mood of the American people, we would not have seen such critical decisions as Brown v. Board when we did. I’m much less apt to decry “judicial activism” than most, too, because I can see some reaching in some of the decisions that have provided fundamental protections on issues about which I care very much.

    We need an independent judiciary, even when we don’t like the direction of that same judiciary.

    But, we also need a reminder, sometimes, that elections matter. And that national elections, particularly for President and the Senate, matter far more than just what the composition of Congress will look like for that term, or who will occupy the White House for the next four years. The U.S. Supreme Court’s future is very much intertwined with the future of our profession, as questions about the constitutional rights of GLBT individuals, the limits of corporate power in this global economy, protections afforded minorities, and the workings of and access to the judicial system itself are likely to be argued in the years to come.

    If we want this first Monday in October to be worthy of celebration, as I believe we must, we’ve got work to do on Election Day, this year and in 2012.

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