The last two days have been clarifying when it comes to the Supreme Court. In ruling successfully against the Voting Rights Act yesterday and voting unsuccessfully to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act today, the court's conservative wing has shown that it has little interest in following Chief Justice John Roberts' famous directive to "call balls and strikes," but instead is fully behind judicial activism in support of the conservative cause.
Today, the court's liberal wing, joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy, struck down the Defense of Marriage Act – which denied federal benefits to married same-sex couples – as unconstitutional on equal protection grounds in a 5-4 decision. Kennedy wrote that DOMA "is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity."
Basically, according to the court, DOMA discriminated against those with legitimate marriages for no real reason and is thus history. U.S. News' Robert Schlesinger put it correctly, writing, DOMA "was a vicious and discriminatory piece of waste and our union is a little more perfect without it."
In their dissents, the court's conservatives – Roberts, along with Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito – wrote that the majority should not have overruled Congress, which approved DOMA in 1996. Scalia even wrote that the majority's opinion "is an assertion of judicial supremacy over the people's Representatives in Congress and the Executive. It envisions a Supreme Court standing (or rather enthroned) at the apex of government, empowered to decide all constitutional questions, always and everywhere ‘primary' in its role."
But yesterday, in ruling that Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional, the court's conservatives – joined by Kennedy this time – had no such qualms about explicitly overruling Congress, which had renewed the law in 2006 by overwhelming margins: the then-Republican-controlled house voted 390-33 in favor, while the count in the Republican-controlled Senate was 98-0.
But no matter. In their opinion, written by Roberts, the conservative justices said, "Congress could have updated the [Section 4] coverage formula at that time, but did not do so. Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare [Section 4] unconstitutional." As Scott Lemieux writes at Lawyers, Guns and Money, Roberts' opinion includes only "astoundingly weak justifications for striking down a major act of Congress," with nothing more than "some handwaving to obviously irrelevant provisions of the Constitution."
So yesterday, according to the court's conservatives, Congress had no business approving a law meant to keep states and localities from disenfranchising voters. Today, though, all due deference should be given to Congress' awful attempt to render gay marriages nonexistent under federal law. Evidently, to those four justices, Congress' wishes only matter when they line up with the conservative worldview. Otherwise, Congress is merely a speed bump. And that's no way to run the highest court in the land.