What Presidents Say Publicly When the Supreme Court Makes a Bad Decision by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
Relations between the U.S. Supreme Court and the President are often strained. And for good reason. The potential is always present for unelected justices to overrule the wishes of the people, as expressed by their elected leaders.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic analysis of democracy, mentions this as an ever-present threat. And Lincoln in an early draft of his first inaugural address writes about the “despotism of the few life-officers composing the Court.” Lincoln is persuaded to take those words out of the final version of his speech., but that’s what he thinks even if it is strong language.
Three decades earlier, the fights between Andrew Jackson and Chief Justice Marshall are titanic. The gnarled old hero of the Battle of New Orleans believes that the President has just as much right to interpret the Constitution as the Court does, thank you very much. When the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Cherokee Indians in a case involving the State of Georgia, Jackson, according to some reports, says John Marshall has made his decision, now let John Marshall enforce it. We do not know for sure if Jackson actually says that. But we do know that Jackson does not enforce the ruling, and it comes to nothing.
That happens in 1832. Now it’s 1857. The Supreme Court has a new Chief Justice by the name of Roger B. Taney. The Taney Court, in a 7-2 decision, rules against granting the slave Dred Scott and his wife their freedom. It is a momentous decision.
The court rules that African American slaves or their descendents have no rights as citizens under the Constitution. But the Court goes further. It rules that the Missouri Compromise is unconstitutional, because it deprives an owner of his property. Moreover, Congress has no right to restrict the spread of slavery into federal territory. It is the first time since the Madison administration that the Supreme Court rules that an act of Congress is unconstitutional. (That happened in 1803 in Marbury v. Madison, the very first time that the Supreme Court ever ruled whether an act of Congress is constitutional.
Taney explains the Court’s decision: “It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
How’s that for enlightened thinking by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court!
Whatever the intent of the justices might have been, the consequences of the decision are profound. Dred Scott gives America the Civil War. The delicate compromises that have been laboriously stitched together are torn apart. Angry quarrels and killings begins.
And Dred Scott gives the world Abraham Lincoln. When the firestorm spreads to the prairies, Abraham Lincoln, who hates slavery, is aroused to action. It is not what he expected. Lincoln expected slavery to die out eventually in the cotton states, but now knows it will spread into the West if something isn’t done to stop it. He decides to re-enter politics.
Dred Scott gives America the Republican Party. Meetings are called for everyone to attend who opposes the spread of slavery. Those meetings turn into an organization, and that organization comes to be known as the Republican Party, the GOP.
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