The fate of our freedom is tied to our courts, so we must demand reform

OPINION: We cannot relinquish our court system to the influence of wealthy, special corporate interests or extremists who want to roll back our hard-won progress.

The Supreme Court is seen under a clearing sky, Friday, June 30, 2023, after case decisions were announced in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

In recent weeks, the Supreme Court has come under intense scrutiny following reports that Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas failed to report luxury trips and gifts from wealthy conservative donors. These stories — combined with the brazenly partisan decisions the court has been issuing — have shaken the public’s confidence in its integrity. A poll conducted in June showed that 59% of registered voters disapprove of the job it’s doing — and cast doubt about its ability to make decisions in the best interest of working people. Of particular concern is the impact that this court will have on the most vulnerable in our society, including communities of color.

As Black men from two different generations, we have seen and experienced firsthand the effect of the U.S. court system on our lives. We have dedicated our careers — one in the labor movement and the other in law — to defending civil and workers’ rights and advancing the fight for economic and racial justice. We understand how pivotal our nation’s judiciary — from the Supreme Court to district courts to state courts — has been in both advancing and resisting racial equity and fairness. That is why we cannot relinquish our court system to the influence of wealthy, special corporate interests or extremists who want to roll back our hard-won progress. We must remain engaged in the fight to shape our judiciary, reinforce its integrity and secure our democracy.

Fred was born in 1954, a critical time for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. It was also the year that the Supreme Court would hand down its consequential ruling to end legal segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. But long before that decision, the courts had already done so much to shape his family’s trajectory. His parents were Mississippi sharecroppers who lived under the repression of Jim Crow laws reinforced in the late 1800s by the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. They traveled north during the Great Migration and started a new life in Chicago. When Fred became a young adult, he took a union job alongside his father at a local aluminum mill and there, he learned about how the courts shaped working people’s lives.

Inside the mill, Black workers were relegated to the hardest and dirtiest jobs while white workers were assigned cleaner and less tedious tasks. Black workers also did not have equal opportunities for advancement. Several union workers, including his father and uncle, joined together to launch a legal fund to sue the steel companies and their union, the United Steelworkers, to change discriminatory hiring practices. Through a series of court cases and hearings including U.S. v. Allegheny-Ludlum Industries, Inc., the workers established a consent decree that would level the playing field and grant equal access to promotions. Their victory affected the entire labor movement and ensured that unions were a force for progress and equality for every worker, regardless of their race or background.

United States Supreme Court (front row L-R) Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts, Associate Justice Samuel Alito, and Associate Justice Elena Kagan, (back row L-R) Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson pose for their official portrait at the East Conference Room of the Supreme Court building on October 7, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

 Rakim grew up in East Harlem, where the unemployment rate is more than three times the national average, the poverty rate is over 30%, incarceration remains high, and 25% of people don’t finish high school. Were it not for the Supreme Court’s commitment to integration after Brown and diversity after Regents of University of California v. Bakke, Rakim could not have achieved his full potential and overcome the circumstances of his birth. In fact, the court reaffirmed affirmative action in a case called Grutter v. Bollinger just as he was considering his prospects after high school. Had the court gone the other way then, his educational opportunities would have been far less attractive and liberating.

Unfortunately, over the last decade, as conservatives have gained power on the Supreme Court, we’ve seen it increasingly wield that power against working people and people of color. The court’s ruling against affirmative action is a huge blow to racial equality, while its blockage of student loan cancellation will hurt Black and brown borrowers the most. The 303 Creative LLC. v. Elenis decision targets LGBTQ+ people but weakens nondiscrimination protections for all vulnerable groups. Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. Teamsters will make it harder for workers to strike, while Sackett v. EPA will now put communities of color at greater risk for polluted water. The court may claim to be “colorblind,” but this series of recent decisions speaks to huge setbacks that are anything but colorblind.

Our collective future hangs in the balance with each damaging decision. So we must take action to support court reforms that get progress moving back in the right direction.

But it’s not just at the Supreme Court. These reforms are needed at every level of the judiciary so that all of us can be sure we have a fair shot in our courts. Our lawmakers must institute and enforce a code of ethics that holds judges to a higher standard and applies real consequences for impropriety. True transparency that gives the American public insight into how our courts operate is also critical to regaining national trust. And we should be considering the proper jurisdiction of our courts to ensure that the people’s voices always predominate in our democracy.

If we wish to win the prolonged fight to protect our republic and preserve it for future generations, strengthening our judiciary will be essential. That work must begin anew, today.

Fred Redmond is secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, America’s labor federation of 60 unions comprising more than 12.5 million members.

Rakim Brooks is the president of Alliance for Justice and a public interest appellate lawyer.

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