|June 27||1979—Justice Brennan’s majority opinion in United Steelworkers v. Weber holds that the provisions of Title VII that make it unlawful to “discriminate … because … of race” in hiring do not in fact make it unlawful to discriminate because of race in hiring—not, that is, when the victims are white. Specifically, Brennan, scorning the “literal interpretation” of Title VII, opines that private employers may adopt racial hiring quotas that disfavor whites in order to “eliminate manifest racial imbalances in traditionally segregated job categories.”
2005—By 5-4 votes, the Supreme Court rules that Ten Commandments displays in Kentucky courthouses violate the Establishment Clause (McCreary County v. ACLU) but that a Ten Commandments display on the Texas State Capitol grounds does not (Van Orden v. Perry). In the Kentucky case, Justice Souter’s majority opinion (joined by Stevens, O’Connor, Ginsburg, and Breyer) darkly observes, “We are centuries away from the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre and the treatment of heretics in early Massachusetts, but the divisiveness of religion in current public life is inescapable.” But it is rulings like Souter’s that are the primary cause of any divisiveness.
Justice Breyer, who provides the decisive fifth vote in each case, explains that for “difficult borderline cases” that are “fact-intensive,” there is “no [Establishment Clause] test-related substitute for the exercise of legal judgment.” That judgment, be assured, “is not a personal judgment” but “must reflect and remain faithful to the underlying purposes” of the Religion Clauses and “must take account of context and consequences.” The particular factor that Breyer finds “determinative” in the Texas case—but don’t jump to the foolish conclusion that anything similar might be determinative in any other case—is that “40 years passed in which the presence of this monument, legally speaking, went unchallenged.” By contrast, the Kentucky displays had a “short (and stormy) history.” And “a more contemporary state effort to focus attention upon a religious text is certainly likely to prove divisive in a way that this longstanding, pre-existing monument has not.” Thus, under Breyer’s view (as well as that of the other members of the Kentucky majority), American citizens today lack the power that their parents and grandparents had to have our governments affirm, acknowledge, and encourage respect for our religious heritage.
|June 28||2000—In sharp defiance of precedent governing facial challenges, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, rules in Stenberg v. Carhart that Nebraska’s ban on partial-birth abortion is unconstitutional. (As discussed here, the Court’s 2007 ruling on the federal partial-birth abortion ban in Gonzales v. Carhart corrects Stenberg’s error on the standard for facial challenges.)
2000—When does a criminal law setting forth a content-based prohibition on speech not violate the Supreme Court’s First Amendment precedents? When it suppresses speech by opponents of abortion. As Justice Scalia states in dissent from the Court’s ruling in Hill v. Colorado, “like the rest of our abortion jurisprudence, today’s decision is in stark contradiction of the constitutional principles we apply in all other contexts.”
2004—In Rasul v. Bush, a majority of the Supreme Court rules that the federal habeas statute—which authorizes federal district courts, “within their respective jurisdictions,” to entertain habeas applications by persons claiming to be held in custody in violation of the laws of the United States—may properly be invoked by aliens detained by the United States military overseas, outside the sovereign borders of the United States and beyond the territorial jurisdictions of all its courts. This “judicial adventurism of the worst sort” contradicts a longstanding precedent and, as Justice Scalia points out in dissent, has “breathtaking” consequences, as it permits aliens captured in foreign theaters of active combat to bring habeas petitions against the Secretary of Defense and thus enables those aliens to “forc[e] the courts to oversee one aspect of the Executive’s conduct of a foreign war.” (See Andrew McCarthy’s fuller discussion.)
|June 29||1972—In Furman v. Georgia, five justices vote to overturn a death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment but can’t agree on a rationale. Each of the five justices instead issues his own opinion. Despite the fact that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments expressly assume the existence of the death penalty, Justices Brennan and Marshall each assert that the death penalty is in every instance an Eighth Amendment violation. The Court’s per curiam declaration creates massive confusion and requires states to rewrite their capital-sentencing laws.
1992—By a vote of 5 to 4, the Supreme Court bungles an opportunity to dismantle the regime of Roe v. Wade and to restore abortion policy to the democratic processes. Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter combine to produce a joint opinion so breathtaking in its grandiose misunderstanding of the Supreme Court’s role that it makes one long for the modest incoherence of Justice Blackmun’s opinion in Roe v. Wade. The joint opinion is perhaps most infamous for declaring, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” What this gauzy New Age rhetoric obscures is that the justices are claiming the unconstrained power to define for all Americans which particular interests they think should be beyond the bounds of citizens to address through legislation. But it gets far worse. Consider, for example, these passages on stare decisis considerations:
“Where, in the performance of its judicial duties, the Court decides a case in such a way as to resolve the sort of intensely divisive controversy reflected in Roe and those rare, comparable cases, its decision has a dimension that the resolution of the normal case does not carry. It is the dimension present whenever the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution calls the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.”
“To all those who will be so tested by following [the Court], the Court implicitly undertakes to remain steadfast, lest in the end a price be paid for nothing. The promise of constancy, once given, binds its maker for as long as the power to stand by the decision survives and the understanding of the issue has not changed so fundamentally as to render the commitment obsolete.”
“Like the character of an individual, the legitimacy of the Court must be earned over time. So, indeed, must be the character of a Nation of people who aspire to live according to the rule of law. Their belief in themselves as such a people is not readily separable from their understanding of the Court invested with the authority to decide their constitutional cases and speak before all others for their constitutional ideals. If the Court’s legitimacy should be undermined, then, so would the country be in its very ability to see itself through its constitutional ideals. The Court’s concern with legitimacy is not for the sake of the Court but for the sake of the Nation to which it is responsible.”
“The Court’s description of the place of Roe in the social history of the United States is unrecognizable. Not only did Roe not, as the Court suggests, resolve the deeply divisive issue of abortion; it did more than anything else to nourish it, by elevating it to the national level where it is infinitely more difficult to resolve. National politics were not plagued by abortion protests, national abortion lobbying, or abortion marches on Congress, before Roe v. Wade was decided. Profound disagreement existed among our citizens over the issue—as it does over other issues, such as the death penalty—but that disagreement was being worked out at the state level.”
“Roe fanned into life an issue that has inflamed our national politics in general, and has obscured with its smoke the selection of Justices to this Court in particular, ever since. And by keeping us in the abortion umpiring business, it is the perpetuation of that disruption, rather than of any pax Roeana, that the Court’s new majority decrees.”
“The Imperial Judiciary lives. It is instructive to compare this Nietzschean vision of us unelected, life tenured judges—leading a Volk who will be ‘tested by following,’ and whose very ‘belief in themselves’ is mystically bound up in their ‘understanding’ of a Court that ‘speak[s] before all others for their constitutional ideals’—with the somewhat more modest role envisioned for these lawyers by the Founders: ‘The judiciary . . . has . . . no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society, and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither Force nor Will but merely judgment . . . .’ The Federalist No. 78.”
For an explanation of this recurring feature, see here.