Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Supreme Court has stopped doing its job

I think what some are not getting when they dismiss criticism of the current highly politicized Supreme Court by noting that the Court has always been highly political is that the current Court is different from prior incarnations of the Court in one important way. Both past Courts and the current Court are highly politicized even as the Justices always pretend they are not. But past Courts were usually careful to make politically motivated decisions if they could come up with a semblance of a logical argument to justify the result. Majorities would try to push the law in the direction they wanted while also keeping an eye on the larger body of precedent around the issue and how it might be influenced by the Court's decision. That would work as a check on the Court because they worried that giving a win to a side in the case before them might cause larger problems for their side in hundreds of other cases that will only be adjudicated in lower courts.

What's weird about the current Court is the majority is not doing that anymore. The recent OSHA/ vaccine or test mandate case is a perfect illustration. The majority's reasoning in that case is that OSHA is intended to regulate workplace safety so a danger that also exists both inside and outside the workplace is not a workplace safety issue. That reasoning makes little logical sense, is based on a distinction that does not exist in the text of the law, and, if taken seriously, would mean that extremely well established OSHA rules (rules that the statute was expressly designed for) might not survive. How can OSHA continue to require steel-toed shoes so that workers are protected if machinery runs over their feet when people can have their foot run over anywhere in the world? Shit can fall from above anywhere, so how can OSHA require hardhats?

When the Supreme Court issues a ruling, it really has two jobs. One is to decide the case before it for the parties to that lawsuit. But the other is to create a clear standard so that other courts in the U.S. have a rule to adjudicate any number of other cases they might face with different particular facts. By focusing almost exclusively on getting the results they want, the conservative majority of the current court have all but abandoned that second job, arguably the most important role the Court plays in our system.

Those elaborate legal theories were actually important. Our system of judicial precedent can't really function without them and the current majority's abandonment of even that pretense pushes the rest of the legal system into a lawless place.