Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Supreme Disappointment

With the U.S. Supreme Court currently down to eight justices, and with Republicans in the Senate pledged to keep it that way until the presidential election, the Court is a hotter topic than usual these days. (And I think it should be hotter still; though that's probably a topic for another time.) The time was right for me to read another book on the subject, and I found a good one in "Injustices: The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted."

Injustices is very similar in premise to a book I've previously read, The Case Against the Supreme Court. Both books take a dim view of the rulings made by the Supreme Court for the vast majority of U.S. history, and seek to walk you through the parade of horrors in detail. But this book differs in enough ways to make both a worthwhile read.

In the world of politics, there are some figures good at problem solving, and others good at inspiring the masses. Erwin Chemerinsky's book (The Case Against the Supreme Court) is more an example of the former. It concludes with a chapter suggesting ways the institution could be transformed and improved. The writer of Injustices, Ian Millhiser, seeks to be more of the latter. This is a rabble-rousing book designed to get you passionate and enraged about the wrongs inflicted on the country by the Supreme Court.

It does so excellently. The book is divided into three sections. The first is a whirlwind tour of the Supreme Court's worst rulings up through the 1950s. It focuses in particular around the "Lochner Era," named for one particular case that epitomized the pro-business, anti-citizen rulings that ran up to and through the Great Depression. This was a time where the Supreme Court declared child labor restrictions unconstitutional, struck down minimum wages and limits on weekly work hours, and made it impossible for companies to be held accountable for negligence leading to injuries and deaths.

The second section is centered on a period from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s (essentially, the years of the Warren Court) where the Supreme Court consistently got things right. As the book's own dedication to three specific Supreme Court justices says, this was the period that showed that "it didn't have to be this way" -- the way of the rest of U.S. history. This was the brief period where the Court ended segregation, championed the rights of individuals over organizations, and reversed many wrongs from earlier decades.

The third section looks at the Supreme Court in the years since, drawing many apt comparisons to the injustices of the Lochner Era. Millhiser points out that things aren't Lochner bad -- not yet -- but he paints a very clear picture of how the Supreme Court's path has been leading right back to the kind of thinking that gave us unjust rulings that today seem unimaginable.

Millhiser presents no prescriptions for how the Court should be remade to right the wrongs he identifies. But his presentation is nevertheless so simple to understand, so visceral, that this book feels absolutely essential to me. People unconvinced of the importance and power of the Supreme Court should absolutely read it. I grade it an A-.

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