What Lincoln Would Say About The U.S. Supreme Court

Obama and the U.S. Supreme Court: Shades of Abraham Lincoln
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.

President Obama has often expressed his admiration for Abraham Lincoln, and for good reason. There are numerous parallels between the two Presidents.

President Lincoln had difficult relations with the U.S. Supreme Court ,and so has President Obama.

During Lincoln’s administration, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was Roger Taney. Even Taney’s harshest critics acknowledged that he was highly intelligent, yet today he is remembered as the justice who wrote the majority opinion in Dred Scott v.Sandford (1857)–one of the most infamous decisions in American history.

That decision led to the formation of the Republican Party, which opposed the spread of slavery into the territories,  and to the Civil War, just three years after the decision was handed down.

Lincoln predicted that Dred Scott would be overturned, which it subsequently was.

As for President Obama, he publicly chastised the U.S. Supreme Court in his 2010 State of the Union Address for its Citizens United decision, a ruling that has opened floodgates of corporate spending on political campaigns.

Chief Justice Taney was the first Catholic Supreme Court justice. He started has career as a federalist, but abandoned that view and came to believe that the states should have more power than the federal government in most cases.

The Dred Scott decision ruled that Congress did not have the right to prohibit the spread of slavery into the western territories, and that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional.

That ruling sparked fierce and bloody skirmishing in what came to be known as“bleeding  Kansas,” roused Lincoln from an active law practice back into politics, and led to his famous debates with Stephen Douglas .

Taney’s judicial argument in the Dred Scott decision could be characterized as “originalist,”to use a term now used to describe the approach of justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Legal originalists are not unlike religious fundamentalists who look for infallible guidelines, whether the Bible, in the case of Protestants, or papal authority, in the case of Catholics.  Originalists believe that in order to interpret the Constitution correctly, it is necessary to understand the original intent of the men who wrote the Constitution. The intent of the Constitution’s framers did not include equal rights for African Americans or, for that matter, for women, and certainly did not include concepts such as Social Security or universal health care.

(The most prominent alternative approach to originalism speaks of a “living Constitution”— a Constitution that provides a dynamic framework for creating laws that are compatible with the changing needs of future generations.)

Taney wrote that African Americans, because they had been considered inferior at the time that the Constitution was written, were not part of the original community of American citizens, and could not be considered citizens of the United States.

Taney explained his thinking this way:
“It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in regard to that unfortunate race which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted; but the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken. They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

President Lincoln vigorously opposed the view Chief Justice Taney espoused, and now in the 21st century, so does President Obama.

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