The Supreme Court's Lost Luster: 3 Trumpers

By Jamie Stiehm

October 21, 2020 5 min read

Even if President Donald Trump loses his bid to be a two-term president, he'll likely bequeath us three of the nine members of the Supreme Court. The Trump Three are the youngest, so his fingerprints will mark the scene of American politics for years to come.

In a flat monotone, Amy Coney Barrett, 48, told us too much of nothing in her Senate hearing, on a fast track to be confirmed Monday. Yet it became clear she opposed reproductive rights, questioned climate change and refused to support the usual peaceful transfer of power. She spells trouble in its "originalist" form.

The Supreme Court seems a lofty realm. Time to be real: It's a blunt political instrument.

We're feeling that cold reality now, like a winter wind. In the marble "equal justice under law" temple, most justices are partisans under black robes. The late Antonin Scalia was a conservative warrior. Justices are meant to be above it all, but they are right in the fight. That truth we can't forget in coming days.

Remember the Bush v. Gore ruling went 5 -4 in 2000, freezing the Florida vote count in the election deadlock — a dark start to the 20th century. The high court charade was split along party lines. "Get over it," Scalia said. Trump hopes that will happen again.

Ending the Affordable Care Act is on the Supreme Court docket in November. The Indiana nominee's silence on that matter did not calm Senate Democrats' fury. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., launched a blistering tirade on the Federalist Society, rich with "dark money"(undisclosed), which gave Trump the three young judges to pick. The aim is to take over the judiciary branch with unlimited money, which the Court greenlighted a decade ago in Citizens United.

So, let's take a lightning look at how the Supreme Court, for better and worse, is shaped by presidents since John Adams. Come with me.

Adams appointed a chief justice from his losing political party under incoming President Thomas Jefferson's nose during their transition. Jefferson was mad. John Marshall, Jefferson's cousin, is considered the best chief justice in history — but they hated each other.

Marshall made the greatest power grab ever by inventing "judicial review," meaning the court may strike down a law it judges unconstitutional. Jefferson was incensed.

Marshall lived long into the 1830s and clashed with President Andrew Jackson, his political opposite. His death created an opening late in Jackson's presidency. He named Roger Taney chief justice. Taney's brother-in-law, Francis Scott Key, recommended him.

In 1857, Taney's Dred Scott ruling stated that Blacks could never have rights that white men were "bound to respect." That racist ruling helped light the powder keg of the Civil War.

Long gone, Jackson left fingerprints on that scene.

Skipping into the 20th century, we meet great justices along the way: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (once a Civil War soldier) and Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice. He was appointed by Woodrow Wilson.

Midcentury, a high turning point for social justice came. The Warren Court, in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, struck down segregation in public schools. The lawyer who argued the landmark case was Thurgood Marshall, later the first Black justice.

Chief Justice Earl Warren, a governor of California, deserves credit for the victory. So does President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, who appointed Warren and brought balance to his court appointments. How rare, yet look how well it worked.

The court suffered a serious blow in 1991, when Clarence Thomas, then 43, with thin experience, came under a cloud of sexual harassment accusations from Anita Hill. Her testimony, searing and vivid, transfixed America over an autumn weekend. Thomas, sullen and angry, vowed revenge.

By the closest Senate vote yet, Thomas was confirmed 52-48. Sen. Joseph R. Biden presided over the shameful, cynical hearing to fill Marshall's seat.

As Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., declared, the "benefit of the doubt" goes to the country.

In Bush v. Gore, the court's standing as a trusted institution fell further. John Paul Stevens' dissent addressed history, saying the loser is "the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."

Barrett clerked for Scalia. Don't ask us to get over it.

Jamie Stiehm writes on Washington politics and history. She may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit creators.com.

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