The Supreme Court finished its spring term with a reactionary siege on women’s and workers’ rights. The court assailed women’s reproductive rights in two major decisions plus an injunction, bestowed “religious rights” on corporations, and then directed a glancing blow at labor unions.
These and other recent court decisions have established fundamental policies while eviscerating congressional legislation.
Popular mass movements have on occasion moved the high court to issue favorable rulings. However, in the absence of mass pressure, the justices usually revert back to a reactionary role, pushing back the gains won by people’s struggles. When the super-rich seek to gut hard-won rights, the Supreme Court is there. That is the period we are in today.
The capitalist government’s three components — the judiciary, executive and legislative — all represent the class interests of the wealthiest corporate owners and bankers, but the Supreme Court can most easily flout public opinion. They don’t have to worry about being reelected — they are lifetime appointees.
This court, led by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, has made many reactionary decisions — in favor of corporations, as in Citizens United — and has overturned or weakened laws and even prior Supreme Court rulings to the detriment of millions of people.
Landmark ruling: Roe v. Wade
In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in Roe v. Wade that abortion is legal; even several Republican appointees voted yes. This decision was in response to the massive women’s movement, which demanded safe, legal abortions.
Ever since, the right wing in and out of legislative bodies has tried to overturn this right or make access to abortion impossible. Conservatives in Congress have tried to undo this basic right but haven’t succeeded.
In recent years, congressional Republicans have unsuccessfully tried to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding because it provides abortions, even though 97 percent of its services provide comprehensive health care, including contraceptives and cancer screenings. This has been a source of constant fights in Congress.
But there has been backsliding by the high court. In 1992, the justices approved the right of states to restrict abortions in the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
The Supreme Court went further in helping the right-wing’s quest to overturn abortion rights and diminish Planned Parenthood when, this June 26, it declared illegal the buffer zone around women’s clinics in Massachusetts. The justices claimed it violated the “free speech rights” of abortion opponents.
The ruling will make it harder for women to access medical care at clinics and will intensify pressure on staff as the level of anti-woman, anti-choice harassment and vitriol increases. It is already emboldening anti-choice forces. This ruling could affect clinic access around the country.
Court undermines Affordable Care Act
When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act of 2010, it seemed that millions could now obtain health insurance. It had been fought against by insurers and other corporate bosses with every means, including false ads. Concessions were then made to the big health insurance companies.
Despite its limitations, the bill contained some good measures, including a mandate that free contraception coverage for women workers be included in all employer health plans. It also provided for compulsory state expansion of Medicaid to cover 17 million eligible poor people. States that refused would be financially penalized.
The beneficial provisions were viciously opposed in Congress, especially in the House where right-wing legislators tried to stop the ACA’s passage. Despite this hostile environment, the ACA passed handily in the Senate, but barely in the House by a 219-to-212 vote. Since the act’s implementation, big companies and right-wing billionaires and politicians have attacked it. They have pressured the government and been able to encroach on and weaken some of the bill’s favorable provisions.
Enter the Supreme Court: In June 2012, the justices approved the ACA in a 5-4 vote, but handed the act’s opponents a victory when it ruled that states could opt out of expanding Medicaid, without penalty. Only two justices dissented. That was a devastating blow to millions of low-income workers, mainly Black, Latino/a and single mothers who were left out in the cold with no health insurance. To date, 24 state governments have opted out.
Then another blow: The Supreme Court approved a challenge by the company Hobby Lobby to the ACA’s mandated contraceptive coverage in employer-provided health plans. In a 5-4 ruling on June 30, the conservative justices granted for-profit corporations “religious rights” to deny women workers coverage for four contraceptives that they unscientifically labeled “abortifacients.”
This Hobby Lobby decision, which the conservatives claimed was “narrow,” was supposed to apply only to these four contraceptive methods. However, the day after that ruling, the same five justices applied it to all 20 forms of contraception included in the ACA. They even ordered appeals courts to reopen cases they had turned down involving businesses that challenged the ACA’s mandate.
On July 3, the same conservative judicial lineup took opposition to the ACA mandate one step further by granting a preliminary injunction to Wheaton College that exempted the institution on religious grounds from covering all contraceptives in its school’s health insurance plans.
The three women justices on the court strongly disagreed. They stressed that the Hobby Lobby ruling applied only to for-profit companies, not nonprofits. Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent charged that the court’s majority had changed the Hobby Lobby decision. She said, “The issuance of the injunction will presumably entitle hundreds of thousands of other objectors to the same remedy.” (New York Times, July 4)
Court aids bosses, harms workers
The decision in Hobby Lobby and the injunction in Wheaton dealt the ACA blows. Under the guise of “religious rights,” companies and nonprofits can conceivably deny other types of health care, discriminate against workers, or deny decent wages and working conditions.
In fact, 14 religious leaders, citing the Hobby Lobby decision, are pressuring President Obama to add a religious exemption to his forthcoming executive order banning discrimination by federal contractors against workers based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
On the day of the Hobby Lobby ruling, the conservative five also hit union rights in the Harris v. Quinn case, harming Illinois home care workers’ ability to bargain for livable wages and benefits. The court, which calls these workers “partial (not full-fledged) public employees,” ruled against the common union practice of requiring nonmembers to pay fees to help with collective bargaining costs.
The unions bargain for both members and nonmembers and have helped this workforce of mainly women, Blacks, Latinas and immigrants win higher wages and benefits.
This case has repercussions for public sector unions, which are under siege. The pro-corporate National Right to Work Foundation, which seeks to eliminate collective bargaining rights in every state, engineered the lawsuit, using the “free speech” issue as a smokescreen for its union-busting aims.
This ruling could assist conservatives in furthering their attacks against public sector unions in their states. It could harm 400,000 home care workers across the country, whose union representation has greatly benefited them.
Court attacks Voting Rights Act
A June 2013 ruling by the court’s reactionary majority, called Shelby v. Holder, struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and weakened another. This decision gave a green light to right-wingers to suppress voting rights won in 1965 through the heroic struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.
Although there had been a struggle in both houses of Congress over it, the Voting Rights Act ultimately passed over the opposition of Southern racists.
The court’s weakening of this important law has aided right-wing forces who are today undermining voting rights in several states. Already, voter ID laws are affecting African-Americans, Latinos/as, students, the elderly, and rural and low-income populations, especially in the South.
There is concern that the court will also weaken the 1964 Civil Rights Act itself, which declared that Jim Crow segregation and discrimination were illegal. Despite a filibuster by Southern segregationists in the Senate, the law was passed within days of the Klan lynchings in Mississippi of Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner during Freedom Summer.
It is clear. The Supreme Court is no avenue for remedying today’s social, economic and political inequities — it exacerbates them. Only united, independent mass movements can set back the reactionary ruling class and its corporate and governmental attacks.