By Robert Reich
I’m old enough to remember John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s presidencies, and Earl Warren’s Supreme Court. They understood the ethical and constitutional necessity of strengthening democracy by constraining the rich and the bigoted, and protecting the votes of people of color and the poor. But starting with Ronald Reagan’s presidency and John Roberts’s Supreme Court, this responsibility has been turned upside down. Reagan loosened campaign finance laws and turned his back on voting rights, and the Roberts Court has made it harder for people of color and the poor to vote — while making it easier for the rich to flood our system with campaign money.
On Monday, a majority of the Supreme Court — all of them Republican appointees, three appointed by Trump — restored an Alabama congressional map that creates only one district favorable to a Black candidate. The Court thereby halted a decision made last month by three federal judges that threw that map out on the basis of the Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, finding that with a Black population accounting for 27 percent of the state’s population, Alabama should have created at least two districts with Black majorities or in which Black voters have an opportunity to select representatives they favor. The full case won’t be heard by the Supreme Court until next term, so the gerrymandered map will remain in place for the 2022 midterm elections.
This has been the pattern for the Republican Supreme Court. You’ll recall that in its 2013 decision Shelby County vs. Holder, a majority of the Court (again, Republican appointees) gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, requiring states with histories of racial discrimination in voting (such as Alabama) to get approval from the Justice Department before making any changes in their voting laws.
But when it comes to money in politics, the Roberts Court doesn’t defer to legislators. It has continually overturned restrictions on how much wealthy people can contribute to political campaigns, beginning with its 2010 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (that decision, again, by Republican appointees).
At a time in our nation’s history when democracy is under direct assault by the Trump Republican Party, this asymmetry in the Supreme Court’s decisions — constraining voting rights for people of color and the poor, while expanding the political rights of the moneyed interests — is especially unwarranted.
Should the Supreme Court be expanded to protect voting rights and constrain the moneyed interests? If not, how best can the asymmetry be remedied?