Laundering Racism Through the Court: The Scandal of States’ Rights

Source: Lynn Adelman, Dissent, Summer 2018

When three conservative law students founded the Federalist Society at Yale Law School in 1982, they probably didn’t expect that it would become one of the most influential legal organizations in the United States. They styled themselves as renegades, fighting back against a liberal legal establishment that was using the courts to trample individual freedoms. But the students had support from a few prominent jurists, including Antonin Scalia—one of their first faculty advisers—and with Ronald Reagan in office, the political tide was turning in their favor. Three-and-a-half decades later, the Federalist Society has some 40,000 members and millions of dollars in funding from conservative megadonors including the Koch brothers. No less than five of its current or former members have served on the Supreme Court (including Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch). Membership in the organization has become an important qualification for an appointment to the federal bench.

Moreover, since roughly the Society’s founding, the doctrine of federalism has become the basis for a new, conservative orthodoxy in U.S. law. The last two Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist and John Roberts, have been strong adherents of federalism, as have virtually all of the other conservative justices. And President Trump is currently stocking the lower federal courts with like-minded jurists at a record pace.

By federalism, these legal conservatives mean that the authority of the federal government is limited, that states are sovereign bodies, and that courts should enforce limitations on federal power and bolster the power of states. On its face, the conservatives’ attachment to federalism may not seem particularly objectionable. After all, the founders did divide power between the federal government and the states so as to facilitate policymaking by those legislators most familiar with the issues in question. It is becoming clear, however, that the practical consequences of the conservatives’ attachment to federalism are far from benign. For African Americans, particularly those living in states of the former Confederacy, the impact of federalist doctrine as implemented by the Supreme Court has been no less than devastating—so much so that the justices’ view that it is justified by the principle of state sovereignty is indefensible.

In this article, I explore this issue primarily in the context of two of the Roberts Court’s most important federalist decisions, Shelby County v. Holder and National Federation of Independent Business (“NFIB”) v. Sebelius. In Shelby County, the Court struck down, on states’ rights grounds, the formula provided in the Voting Rights Act (“VRA”) for determining whether states and municipalities had to get approval from Washington (preclearance) for any change in their voting rules to ensure that the change was not racially discriminatory. Similarly, in NFIB, the Court struck down the inducement in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for states to participate in the act’s Medicaid-expansion program on the grounds that it violated states’ rights. In both Shelby County and NFIB, Chief Justice Roberts wrote the principal opinion…..