I woke up yesterday to the news that Trump’s Supreme Court–through its “Shadow Docket” and by a five to four margin–had effectively overturned what lawyers call “incorporation”–an odd term for the proposition that the Bill of Rights constrains state and local governments
In a scathing dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: “The court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand.”
Actually, it’s worse than that. Much worse.
Not only does the Court’s increasing use of the Shadow Docket raise serious questions about the erosion of the judicial transparency fundamental to the rule of law, the decision to allow Texas’ empowerment of culture war vigilantes achieves a goal long held by “states rights” fundamentalists: a return to the days when state and local lawmakers could impose their preferred “morality” on their citizens–and not-so-incidentally decide which citizens were entitled to equal rights– without the pesky interference of the federal government.
As I noted yesterday, approval of Texas’ ploy opens a door to civil strife far removed from the abortion wars. State legislatures can now turn private citizens into “enforcers” of pretty much any goal–and not just conservative ones. The decision effectively approves a federalism on steroids, and the unraveling of the “United” States.
I used to explain to my students that one of the salutary effects of the incorporation of the Bill of Rights was that it ensured a “floor”–so that when someone moves from New York to Alabama or Texas, they don’t suddenly lose their right to religious liberty or free speech or their protection against unreasonable search and seizure..
This case strikes a terrifying blow against that principle.
I titled this post “a perfect storm” because the Supreme Court’s abandonment of fifty years of precedent is only one of the truly existential challenges we currently face.
It is no longer possible to pretend that climate change is some sort of elitist, liberal theory that can safely be ignored. Fires in California (now threatening Nevada), increasingly powerful hurricanes battering not just Louisiana but causing flooding and chaos all the way to New England, the continuation of “extinctions” threatening to disrupt the global ecology…the list goes on. There are some valiant efforts underway to combat climate change, but the likelihood is that even if those efforts manage to moderate its effects, there will be enormous disruptions of global life–including famines and massive population movements.
Then, of course, there’s the pandemic. Two pandemics, actually–COVID and insanity. The insanity makes it highly likely that COVID won’t be the last disease to decimate populations around the world.
Speaking of insanity, Leonard Pitts reminds us of the rising tide of rightwing violence.
While it’s unlikely we’ll see regional armies clashing as they once did at Antietam and Shiloh, is it so hard to imagine the country descending into a maelstrom of conservative terrorism, the kind of hit-and-run asymmetric warfare — random bombings and shootings — that rocked Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s? Certainly, the weapons and the sense of grievance are there.
On top of all of this, outdated elements of America’s legal architecture are impeding our ability to confront these challenges. In a recent, very important paper by Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center (I will have much more to say about his paper in future posts), Wilkinson concluded his analysis of what he calls “The Density Divide” with a recitation of the mismatch between America’s population realities and that framework.
As Wilkinson notes, our Constitutional system has a strong small-state bias, “which effectively gives extra votes to topsoil in low-population states.” In a country where 50 percent of voters identify or lean Democratic and 42 percent identify or lean Republican–a Democratic advantage of some 18 million voters– the GOP has erected “an imposing fortification” through gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter-roll purges…the list goes on.
Wilkinson underscores what many others have said: we desperately need structural reforms and especially strong new legislation protecting voting rights. What he doesn’t say–since his paper was written before the Court’s recent assault on the supremacy of the Constitution–is that such protection must be nationally enforceable.
This “perfect storm” has created a genuinely existential moment. It is no longer possible to ignore the fact that American governance by We the People is teetering on a dangerous edge. The question is: can a nation burdened with a substantial minority of QAnon-believing, MAGA-hat wearing, Ivermectin-ingesting, Confederacy-loving citizens–many if not most of whom are White racially-resentful rural residents empowered by outdated electoral structures– rise to the challenge?