Court rulings, for the most part, have as their legal basis court precedent. Where no precedent exists, new precedent is established. It is the role of the court, including the Supreme Court, to interpret those previous rulings and apply them to the particular set of circumstances in today’s society and, in the Supreme Court’s case especially, ensure that the court’s decision is consistent with Constitutional intent. The Supreme Court, under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, has been rather infamous for not allowing itself to be burdened with the precedent established in previous Supreme Court rulings. In the Heller case in 2006, it ignored substantial precedent regarding gun ownership by individuals. An even more egregious ignoring of precedent came in the Citizens United case in 2010 in which the court ignored much precedent designed to limit spending in political campaigns. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act is another example.
However, that was then and this is now. Supreme Court rulings over the last few weeks have given cause to wonder if the Roberts Court has finally turned the corner and, even if only by the slimmest of margins, has come to recognize its obligation to the best interests of society? Maybe so.
In recent weeks the court has: declared that same sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the United States, upheld a key provision of the Affordable Care Act thereby allowing millions of Americans to keep their health insurance, ruled that state legislatures do not have a monopoly on redistricting a.k.a gerrymandering, refused to consider letting states require evidence of citizenship when people register to vote in federal elections, granted an emergency appeal which resulted in keeping 19 abortion clinics in Texas open for the time being, ruled that California must drastically reduce its prison population to relieve severe overcrowding that has exposed inmates to increased disease, violence and death, and even ruled that Texas has the right to ban a specialty license plate design that features the Confederate battle flag. WOW! Who could have imagined this court taking all of these actions? Not me!
Each of these ruling are significant. The ruling in Obergfell vs. Hodges recognized that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for equal protection under the law, would also protect the right of two people of the same sex to marry and to have that marriage legally recognized in all fifty states. The ruling, in effect, recognized that the religious beliefs of some should not deprive others of their equal rights under the law. The King vs. Burwell ruling was significant in that it enables more than 6.5 million Americans in 34 states to afford their health insurance. The ruling regarding gerrymandering, Arizona State Legislature vs. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, is also of obvious significance since, by ruling that state legislatures do not have a monopoly on redistricting, legislatures will now have less opportunity to control the outcomes of elections by gerrymandering the Congressional districts and, just as importantly, commissions such as the one created by voters in Arizona, will have more latitude to address the current inequities created by previous gerrymandering.
The significance of the abortion ruling may only be temporary since the 19 Texas abortion clinics are to remain open only until such time that the Court decides to hear the full appeal. However, it is still significant in that when the Court does hear the full appeal, as is expected, the Supreme Court will decide if states can require stringent regulations for the sole purpose of making it near impossible for abortion clinics to exist and the “woman’s right to choose”.
Regarding the ruling on voting rights, the Court left intact a decision by the federal government that blocked the states from requiring proof of citizenship for voters in federal elections since the form used for federal elections already requires an affirmation of citizenship. This ruling is significant in that it supports the concept of making voting requirements less, not more, stringent to encourage, not discourage, voting. In a society that sees election turnout sometimes as low as 20 percent of registered voters, maybe a ruling such as this one will stem the tide of states trying to fix a problem, voter fraud, that clearly does not exist.
The ruling on California prisons I found particularly interesting since, while the United States accounts for only five percent of the world’s population, it accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prison population. The ruling handed down by the court requires California to drastically reduce their prison population to relieve severe overcrowding. The incarceration for non-violent, low level crimes end up costing the state more money than it is worth. A great example of this is the incarceration of individuals who do not have the money to pay their fines. By being incarcerated, these individuals are not in position to raise the money needed for the fines and the state takes on the financial responsibility for the incarceration. A lose-lose situation for everyone but the private contractor who runs the prison and gets paid per inmate.
And now for the flag. In Walker vs. Sons of Confederate Veterans, the court’s ruling was based on the First Amendment and the right of free speech. The case involved placing the Confederate battle flag design on a license plate. The court ruled that, although an individual has a right to speech, the government also has a right to speech and, since the license plate is state issued, the government, in this case Texas, has the right to ban the design. The court decided that, at least in this case, government speech superseded individual speech. The Maryland Attorney General has just applied this ruling to determine that legislation is not needed for Maryland to recall license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag.
Of all of these rulings, the most significant ruling, in my estimation, may very well be the ruling on the Affordable Care Act. I say this not so much because it allowed millions of Americans to keep their health insurance but, rather, because of what Chief Justice Roberts said in the majority opinion: “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not destroy them.” This, to me, is extremely meaningful since it makes it clear that the thinking of the court focused on Congressional intent, not just the literal wording, or in the case of the ACA, mis-wording, of the act.
This is not to say that all rulings from the court were perfect. The court also ruled against the EPA regarding limits on the level of mercury, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals that coal plants can emit. As the saying goes, “you can’t win’em all”. So, while there is still a great deal of work ahead for all of us, based on these court rulings, I am encouraged.