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VIEWPOINT

The politics of the Supreme Court

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Elwood Watson

Elwood Watson

Roe v. Wade — January 22, 1973 to June 24, 2022.

What a month it has been. The right-wing dominated Supreme Court voted to weaken Miranda rights, required states to fund private religious schools, protected border patrol agents from excessive force claims, and weakened the requirements for concealed carry laws.

Oh, and Roe v. Wade was officially overturned.

The ruling nullified a precedent that had been the law of the land for almost half a century. While the judgment was not totally surprising, the court’s decision sent seismic shockwaves throughout the nation and reverberated abroad as well. As if this announcement wasn’t chilling enough to many people, an adjacent opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas indicated that the increasingly ideological court may target more established decisions.

The far-right justice stated that the court should consider revisiting cases relating to access to contraception and also to same-sex marriage and relationships. Among the previous decisions that Thomas mentioned are:

- Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) established the right of married couples to purchase contraception without government restriction.

- Lawrence v. Texas (2003) set that criminal punishments for those who commit “sodomy” were unconstitutional.

- Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

Thomas argued that: “We have a duty to ‘correct the error’ established in those precedents. … After overruling these demonstrably erroneous decisions, the question would remain whether other constitutional provisions guarantee the myriad rights that our substantive due process cases have generated.”

As some other pundits and political observers have deftly noted, in his list of established precedents, Thomas omitted Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage. I guess this ruling hits too close to home for Thomas.

The truth is the conservative right has shrewdly and strategically (albeit in a perverse and sinister manner) played the long game. Republicans took cognizance of the success that the left had garnered during the 1960s, such as its monumental victories with the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), culminating with the ratification of Roe in the early 1970s.

Conservative activists then realized that they could employ similar strategies.

Unlike previous generations of conservatives, who were largely content with the status quo, this group of reactionary right wingers have demanded radical and regressive change. Such conservatives hate the left, as they deem them as being with sympathetic or indifferent to communism. They view mainstream Republicans as pretty much harboring the same values as centrist Democrats on fiscal matters and as liberals on social issues. They deeply resent the civil rights movement for striking at the heart of Jim Crow and segregation. The modern feminist movement has earned their ire as well.

However, abortion became the poster child for their decades-long crusade.

Just as liberals championed politicians like Lyndon B. Johnson, Eugene McCarthy, and Robert Kennedy, conservatives rallied around political figures such as Ronald Reagan and Pat Buchanan. Although many saw Reagan as the political leader who would lead them to the promised land, Reagan largely gave lip service to the political and cultural right without enacting much of its political agenda.

George H. W. Bush had an adversarial relationship with this group, and his son, George W. Bush, was viewed as the sort of neoconservative who personified the epitome of all they despised. Ironically, it was the thrice-married, womanizing, crude-talking, habitual sinner, occasional Democrat-voting, and non-ideological Donald Trump who delivered much of their agenda for them. The old adage “politics makes strange bedfellows” certainly rings true in this case.

Now, after realizing their decades-long goal of getting Roe repealed, as Justice Thomas has made it clear, the conservative far right is wasting no time in making sure as much of its political plan is swiftly implemented. Indeed, in response to the verdict, Texas Senator John Cornyn remarked, “Now do Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education.” After predictable public outrage, the senator attempted to clarify his remarks claiming that he had been trying to say that Brown v. Board (1954) overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

The truth is the far right is increasingly saying out loud the quiet parts of their discourse. Feeling ever more emboldened by the rulings of the past few years, including last week’s Supreme Court judgment, they have made no secret of their long-intended goal to do everything in their power to ensure that non-White Christians, women, the disabled, and LGBTQ people have few, if any, rights, protections, or claims to citizenship.

As many of them believe, the light at the end of the tunnel can be seen and they intend to reach it. People of good will must make every effort to combat such an outcome.

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.

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