The mean men in black

Published June 24, 2007

Often you can sum up the collective actions of the Supreme Court under a particular chief justice with one word. The Warren court will always be remembered as liberal, the Burger court as pragmatic, the Rehnquist court as conservative, and the Roberts court in a short time has already earned its moniker: mean.

The addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito to the heartless duo of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas has cemented a plurality for cruelty. If there's a choice between casting their lot with the little guy and tipping a case toward compassion, or putting a foot on his throat, it's a safe bet that these four will be getting out their boots.

Thomas and Scalia are the guys who said in a dissent that a prison guard kicking and punching a prisoner to the extent that he suffered a split lip and loosened teeth didn't amount to cruel treatment under the Constitution. To them it was a case of "insignificant harm."

Now we see that Roberts and Alito are cut from the same razor wire, and when Justice Anthony Kennedy joins them its a winning hand for corporate interests, big government and persecutors everywhere.

Just imagine the amount of rotting snakes, snails and puppy dog tails it took for these five men to rule against Lilly Ledbetter, a woman who suffered years of pay discrimination as a supervisor at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. When Ledbetter retired after 19 years, she had a salary that was $6, 700 lower than that of the worst paid male of the same rank.

The right thing would have been for the court to recognize that every slighted paycheck Ledbetter received was another incident of discrimination. That would have allowed the six-month clock for filing a sex discrimination complaint under Title VII to begin anew every payday, and it would have allowed Ledbetter's trial court victory to stand.

But the court majority went another route, one that is so far from understanding the world of work that it seems purposely blind. It said that she was out of luck because she didn't file a discrimination complaint within 180 days of the original sexist decisions to grant her lower raises than her male peers. Even if she didn't know her colleagues' salaries, it was up to her to intuit that she was being cheated and take quick action, or her employer gets off scot free.

On another front, Scalia and Thomas have a long track record of being boosters of the death penalty. They famously dissented from rulings in which juveniles and the mentally retarded were excluded from the ranks of those who could be executed. The more the merrier.

Now Kennedy, Roberts and Alito are joining them in a ruling that is certain to impact the makeup of juries by making them more likely to vote for death. In Uttecht vs. Brown, the high court allowed a trial court to disqualify a potential juror from a death penalty case because his support for the death penalty was not unqualified. This juror said six times that he believed in the death penalty and that he would follow the law and apply it in accordingly. But because he expressed some reservations about its overuse, the trial court kicked him off the case and the Mean Supremes went along.

And in another criminal justice decision just issued, the same five members ruled against a man who followed a judge's incorrect instructions. Because Keith Bowles relied on a filing deadline provided by a federal district court, he missed the real deadline for his appeal by three days. In the past, as the four dissenters pointed out, the court would apply the "unique circumstances" doctrine and allow Bowles' case to progress. But that is way too much compassion for the Roberts court, which told Bowles tough noogies, and by the way, the "unique circumstances" doctrine is overruled.

On the rare occasion that Kennedy finds his inner humanity, he joins the more liberal justices on court, leaving the four reactionaries to smolder in anger. In the 5-4 Massachusetts vs. Environmental Protection Agency, the majority found that the Clean Air Act means what it says, and instructs the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases.

In dissent, Roberts wrote 15 pages on why the court shouldn't have allowed the group of states, cities and environmental groups that brought the suit into court in the first place.

Once again proving that elections matter, President Bush has done what he promised and appointed justices in the mold of Scalia and Thomas.

So far, there is so little daylight between Roberts, Alito, Thomas and Scalia that we should refer to the group as the RATS Pack. I wonder which powerless litigant they'll chew up next?