Supreme Court and rights of the poor

By Tina Patterson

Occupying the grandest space at the pinnacle of American jurisprudence, the United States Supreme Court, formed of nine individuals, has the power to determine decisions that have a myriad of social consequences lasting for decades, and possibly, indefinitely.

Therefore, any shift on the bench is a monumental occasion. Tuesday, July 31, marks such an event, as it is the last day in robes for longtime Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Known for being a swing vote on the bench during his term on the highest court in the nation, Justice Kennedy, would often cast the deciding vote, thereby tilting the bend of the decision left or right. His departure is no doubt unique due to his penchant for securing 5-4 decisions, yet as indicated earlier, any Supreme Court vacancy and subsequent appointment are immense occurrences, as their decisions fuel social transformation.

Throughout history, landmark Supreme Court decisions have carried enormous influence by serving as the legal impetus for the advancement of marginalized and impoverished communities. From the preeminent Brown v Board of Education, declaring separate is not equal, to Gideon v Wainwright, guaranteeing the fundamental constitutional right to counsel to the poor, these cases have codified equality and access in American law.

While far from perfect or even fairly applied, the rulings paved a way for disadvantaged populations to advance in a society where routine exclusion and blatant discrimination were previously the only options. Yet even with these lauded, historic decisions of the past, we do not have to look beyond this past decade alone to find cases of enormous magnitude that have impacted the lives of these populations.

Most notably, there are multiple cases that have challenged the controversial Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as “Obamacare,” enacted into law in 2010 by former President Barack Obama. In each challenge before the Court, the ACA emerged victorious, thus ensuring healthcare for millions of people who were uninsured previously, specifically those with preexisting conditions, including pregnancy, chronic diseases, and other disabilities. While the ACA intended to extend Medicaid coverage to low income families nationally, the Court’s 2012 ruling allowed the provision to be exercised as an option by the states. Even so, Medicaid has been extended throughout the majority of the nation, with 33 States, including Michigan, opting in to ensure healthcare coverage for millions of low income families is guaranteed.

Like healthcare, education is another major quality of life issue, and often viewed as a way out of poverty. In fact, college degree holders earned 56% more than high school graduates in 2015, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Also, akin to healthcare, higher education has been the subject of Supreme Court decisions, specifically as it relates to Affirmative Action in using race as a factor in college admissions to remedy decades of unequal access to higher education for racial minorities. The Affirmative Action program, enacted into law in 1965 by former President Lyndon B. Johnson, has undergone a series of challenges since its inception. However, the Supreme Court recently upheld the policy in the 2016 case Fisher v University of Texas, with the majority opinion penned by Justice Kennedy himself, ruling that race can continue to be used as a criterion for admissions in higher education to ensure a diverse student population.

While healthcare and education are just two key quality of life issues, there is no limit to the plethora of topics essential for improving lives that appear before the Supreme Court.

Moving forward with a new appointment pending, the power to transform lives remains in the hands of these nine individuals. With history as a guide to the future, major issues of social equality are sure to reemerge before the Court. From the peak of the American judicial system, to the farthest reaches of American society, these cases serve as a blueprint for ensuring equitable access for all under the American credence to form a more perfect Union.

Tina M. Patterson is president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, an independent anti-poverty think tank based in Detroit. 

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