The Supreme Court Takes With One Hand, Gives With the Other

By simultaneously moving in opposite directions on fundamental principles of civil rights, this Court has torn a hole in our political fabric, and once again left the nation part equal and part unequal.
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It's been a bittersweet week in the Supreme Court. On the one hand, the Court's decisions on same-sex marriage left many of us profoundly hopeful, while its voting rights opinion was deeply disappointing. By simultaneously moving in opposite directions on fundamental principles of civil rights, this Court has torn a hole in our political fabric, and once again left the nation part equal and part unequal.

We are thrilled about United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry and look forward to the implementation of same-sex marriage in California and to the application of full federal rights to all same-sex married couples nationwide. These cases are important steps in the long march toward full equality for each and every LGBT American, although with 37 states lagging behind, there is still a long way to go.

At the same time, we are mindful that the Court in Shelby County v. Holder has dismantled one of the most important civil rights statutes ever enacted in our history. The Voting Rights Act has been the cornerstone of the nation's efforts to end the pernicious inequalities that have disenfranchised people of color since the founding of the Republic. Nothing is more fundamental to the concept of freedom and democracy than the right to vote. This week, the Court willfully turned its back on the hard-won promise of equality, pretending that the quest for racial equality is over and the law is no longer necessary. The Chief Justice astonishingly asserted that "Our country has changed" so much we no longer this law to remedy discrimination.

Just weeks after a leader of the Texas Tea Party admitted, "I'm going to be real honest with you, the Republican Party doesn't want black people to vote if they're going to vote 9-to-1 for Democrats," the Court has turned a blind eye to the sad reality of modern political life and done inestimable damage to the cause of justice in America, while no doubt bringing great comfort to red-state Republicans who no longer will be inconvenienced by the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

We saw this Court's propensity for obtuseness most famously in Anthony Kennedy's opinion in Citizens United, where he expressed skepticism that big money could possibly be a corrupting factor in our elections. We saw it again just this week in the decision by the increasingly churlish Justice Samuel Alito in Vance v. Ball State University, which showed not the slightest understanding of (or concern about) how workplaces function in this country. Workers will now have a much harder time fighting blatant harassment on the job.

Although the real world rarely seems to intrude into some Justices' consciousness, perhaps they'll glance up at an airport TV while heading out-of-town for their summer vacations, and catch the reports that Republicans in Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina are gleefully celebrating the decision by announcing that they are dusting off their previously squelched Voter ID laws. Texas is also resurrecting its transparently racist redistricting plans, which had been carefully crafted to minimize the ability of people of color to actually play a role in our democracy. And so it begins.

Regrettably, this week the Supreme Court has seen fit to give with one hand, while taking with the other. In the wake of these decisions, it is clearer than ever that the struggle for a full measure of justice for every single American must continue in our own time, just as it did a half century ago when the Voting Rights Act was first conceived. The Court's actions are a stark reminder that the fight against bigotry, intolerance, and the cynical manipulation of these destructive impulses for political gain never ends. There is work to be done.

For the LGBT community and their allies, the fight for same-sex marriage equality moves to the 37 states that lag behind, while efforts continue to pass the Employment Nondiscrimination Act and replace the surviving sections of the indefensible Defense of Marriage Act with the Respect for Marriage Act.

To remedy the decision in Shelby County, Congress should immediately take up Chief Justice Roberts' challenge to rewrite the preclearance formula, while in the meantime the Justice Department should engage in vastly more aggressive use of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which remains intact (for now, anyway) in order to put a lid on the Pandora's Box of voter suppression activities that will be unleashed by the decision.

As we try to reconcile the events of this week it's important to remember the prophetic words of civil-rights pioneer Fannie Lou Hamer: "Nobody's free until everybody's free."

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