Today in History, May 3, 1948:
The US Supreme Court hands down a decision in Shelley v Kraemer, asserting housing rights for minorities.
In 1906 a nice two-story home was built in the 4600 block of Labadie Street in a neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri. In 1911 residents of the neighborhood established a covenant which was common in America in the early Twentieth Century; the agreement ensured their neighborhood would remain “white only.” Home owners agreed not to sell to African-Americans or Asian-Americans.
In 1930 the Shelley family moved to St. Louis from Mississippi to escape pervasive racial bias. They were raising their six children when in 1945 a home owner agreed to break the covenant and sell them the house on Lebadie Street.
Another owner, Kraemer, filed suit to prevent the sale. The local court ruled in favor of the Shelleys, the Missouri state court against them. The case was then appealed to the US Supreme Court.
In a decision reminiscent of Chief Justice John Marshall, the Court set things right. The covenant was a private, not a state agreement. Therefore, the court system did not have the authority to prevent the covenants. This also meant the courts could not ENFORCE them. The Fourteenth Amendment protections of equal enforcement of laws and property rights had been been upheld.
Today in History, March 6, 1857:
The Dredd Scott Decision.
Dredd Scott was a slave whose owner had traveled and lived in “free states” and had promised him his freedom. When his owner died, Scott sued for his freedom, because he had lived in “free” states.
The case worked it’s way up the chain to the Supreme Court, which at that time was loaded with Southerners.
Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the majority opinion that declared that no slave could possibly be a citizen, therefore they had no standing to sue. Also that the Federal Government had no right to regulate slavery in the states and territories.
Obviously a biased, politically motivated opinion, the decision, in part, led to the horrific, devastating American Civil War.
So our lesson is complex. The Supreme Court, while our highest court, is not infallible. It’s bad decisions lead to horrific consequences for the nation. It DOES make political decisions. And this theory does not end with Dredd Scott.
Today in History, February 15, 1879:
President Rutherford B. Hayes signs legislation allowing women attorneys that are qualified to argue cases before the Supreme Court and other Federal Courts.
3 years earlier attorney Belva Lockwood had sought permission to argue cases before the Supreme Court, and the Justices voted to refuse her permission to do so.
She lobbied the Congress, who passed legislation reversing the Court’s decision. Lockwood would then become the first woman to argue a case before the court. It would be nearly a half century before women would be given the vote nationally in America.
Decisions like this and the Dredd Scott decision are glaring examples of how we cannot assume that the courts are infallible.
Today in History, July 11, 1921:
Former President William Howard Taft is sworn in as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, his dream job.
He had been a jurist in several different posts, Governor-General of the Philippines, Secretary of War and finally President. His former friend Theodore Roosevelt had tried to appoint him to the court several times, but he had refused because he felt responsibilities to the positions he filled at the time.
He never really wanted to be President, but Chief Justice had been his life long dream. President Warren G. Harding gave it to him, making him the only person to hold both jobs, and the only former President to swear in future Presidents.
Today in History, June 30, 1921:
President Warren G. Harding nominated former President William Howard Taft as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States after the death of the previous Chief Justice, Edward Douglass White…who Taft had nominated when he was President.
The irony is that Taft never wanted to be President…he became such as the result of the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt…one of his closest friends.
TR then turned on him vociferously when Taft didn’t carry out TR’s policies to his liking. Taft was crushed by the attacks by his friend…but in the end, he obtained the job he had wanted since he was a child…Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States…years after being President.
Taft’s history in the law and government made him very well qualified for the job.
Today in History, February 24: 1803:
Marbury vs. Madison.
The Supreme Court establishes the principle of Judicial Review. In a case fraught with typical American skullduggery, the US Supreme Court gains it’s power.
In the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson had defeated the one term John Adams. In the time before the end of his term, Adams appointed as many judges and justice of the peace as he could, even working with his fellow party members to increase the number of judges.
This resulted in the infamous “midnight judges” that were appointed at the last minute. Adams’ Secretary of State, John Marshall, wasn’t able to deliver all of the commissions to the judges and justices of the peace in time before Adams’ term ended, but figured the new Secretary of State, James Madison, would do so.
He did not. Realizing they’d been snookered, Jefferson and Madison’s party did not deliver the new commissions. One of the Justices of the Peace, William Marbury, sued. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court…whose Chief Justice now was…John Marshall.
Marshall made a decision that was a master stroke. The Court decided that the commissions should have been delivered…but at the same time decided that the court could not enforce the decision because Marbury did not have standing to file suit.
While this initially seemed to emasculate the Court…in the end the decision established that the Court could render Congressional acts Unconstitutional if it chose to do so.
Marshall was looking down the road, not at only the immediate issue.
There are dozens of examples of why appointments to the Court are important.
Today in History, June 30: 1921 – President Warren G. Harding nominated former President William Howard Taft as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States after the death of the previous Chief Justice, Edward Douglass White…who Taft had nominated when he was President. The irony is that Taft never wanted to be President…he became such as the result of the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt…one of his closest friends. TR then turned on him vociferously when Taft didn’t carry out TR’s policies to his liking. Taft was crushed by the attacks by his friend…but in the end, he obtained the job he had wanted since he was a child…Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States…years after being President.