This commentary originally aired on December 30, 2014.
The meaning of the words justice served relies on the social, political and legal contexts in which it is applied.
Two 19th-century U.S. Supreme Court cases reflect how the Court’s decisions can be swayed by contemporary racial politics. In its 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, the Court declared that African Americans could not sue for freedom in federal court because they were not considered citizens. This decision reversed 28 years of precedent, reflecting more the heightened division over slavery than impartial justice.
Thirty-nine years later, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision upheld racial segregation and the doctrine of “separate but equal.” The Court argued that Jim Crow laws, written to restrict African Americans’ civil rights and liberties, did not violate the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection, a protection that had been written specifically to recognize African Americans as full citizens in the aftermath of the Civil War.
While Plessy was overturned by 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, it reflects post-Civil War racial attitudes that upheld a two-tiered legal system, segregation and lynching in the name of justice served.
These two cases consistently top the list of worst Supreme Court decisions because, from the vantage point of the 21st century, they so clearly violate the principles of citizenship and equal protection that the U.S. Constitution guarantees. But at the same time, they demonstrate the important role of context, revealing the limitations of humans entrusted to apply justice evenly in a legal system historically resistant to change.
While the 19th-century theologian Theodore Parker believed that the moral arc of the universe bent toward justice, it is important to remember that we, the people, are the architects of that justice.