By: Dr. Jerry Bergman
Most of the U. S. Supreme Court decisions, even the controversial ones, eventually become settled law.
A decade later, most people wonder “How could the Court have ruled any other way?”
American Supreme Court rulings often have ramifications throughout the world.
The laws of other nations, especially Western nations, are heavily influenced by our Court’s decisions, and they often openly cite our Court’s rulings to defend their own rulings.
The Supreme Court is the most powerful institution in America. Yet it is fallible, as are all human institutions.
The total number of rulings since the Court was established in 1790 runs into the thousands.
Although 98 percent still stand even today, a few rulings were so bad that they were overturned by the Supreme Court itself in later years.
Actually, 232 of its own case rulings have been reversed by a subsequent U. S. Supreme Court since 1810.
Among the worst Supreme Court decisions was Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U. S. 393 (1857), which held that “black” people were not intended to be included as citizens under the Constitution.
Therefore, they could claim none of the rights and privileges secured to citizens of the United States.
In this case, the Court ruled that “Negroes” were, for more than a century, “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 inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Sadly, the Court, in a 7 to 2 decision, supported the prevailing scientific thought of that time by asserting that “Negroes” were an inferior “race,” less-evolved than the Caucasian “race.”
Dred Scott was a slave owned by an army physician who had taken him from Missouri, a slave-holding state, into Illinois, where slavery was illegal.
When his owner brought him back to Missouri, he [Scott] claimed that, because he had been taken into “free” U. S. territory, he was legally no longer a slave.
In 1846, Scott and his wife, aided by anti-slavery lawyers, sued for their freedom and eventually lost in the Supreme Court. This ruling was the law of the land for a half century.
Laws in the United States, called “Jim Crow” statutes, were based on the racial inferiority belief. In 1896, Homer A. Plessy challenged racist laws by deliberately violating Louisiana’s Separate Car Act of 1890, also known as The Withdraw Car Act (Act 111).
The 1890 Act required “equal, but separate” train car accommodations for White and non-White passengers based on the superior-inferior race belief.
Plessy was an octoroon, a person seven-eighths “White” and a mere one-eighth “Black,” who physically appeared 100 percent Caucasian.
It was for this reason that he was thought to be an excellent candidate to challenge the existing racist law.
Plessy’s attorney, Albion W. Tourgée, correctly argued that the 1890 Separate Car Act was based on the belief in the inferiority of African Americans compared to the superiority of “Whites.”
The Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U. S. 537, ruled that “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.” (Plessy v. Ferguson, 544, 552). It took almost another half century for the Supreme Court to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson, specifically in the Brown, et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, et al. (347 U. S. 483 (1954)).
The Brown case ruled that “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that [the complainant was] deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment (Brown 1954, 488, 495).”
The Brown ruling was a major step in overturning the belief in the evolutionary inferiority of certain “races.”
In the 20th century, a movement called Darwinian eugenics was supported by many scientists and doctors.
They believed that inferior persons, both Black and White, should be sterilized to prevent them from producing more inferior persons like themselves.
The movement faced opposition from Black and White churches and persons who believed that all men were created in the image of God.
To silence the opposition, the eugenicists brought a case all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court sided with the eugenicists, ruling that an uneducated white girl, Carrie Buck, could be sterilized against her will.
The eugenics lobby used this case to open the door to massive Darwinian eugenic sterilizations for the thousands of people they deemed unfit to reproduce due to what they judged as their evolutionary and mental inferiority.
The highly respected Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, sanctioned state-enforced sterilization of so-called inferior persons based on Darwinian eugenics, claiming that, heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, imbecility.
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.
The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough (Buck v. Bell 1927, 206-207).
Actually, Carrie ended up in an institution only because, as a pregnant young girl without a family member willing to take her in, it was the best choice for her then.
Furthermore, in contrast to the Judge’s claim, Carrie was a life-long avid reader and lived into her seventies.
And those who found themselves against her in a bridge game had no reason whatsoever to believe that she was “feeble-minded” or anything close.
Nonetheless, this 8-to-1 Supreme Court decision opened the eugenic floodgates, soon resulting in over 64,000 eugenic sterilizations in America.
This ruling also influenced the Nazis to copy the American law, forcibly sterilizing 375,000 putatively “inferior” Germans.
At the Nuremberg War Crime trials, the Nazis who carried out forced eugenic sterilizations cited the Buck v. Bell case as their motivation and, likewise, as their defense in the Nuremberg trials.
In Minersville Schools v. Gobitis (310 U. S. 586 (1940)), the Supreme Court ruled that the state could force students to salute the U. S. flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
The extent of the enforcement even included being expelled from school and removal from their parents’ home.
The Court ruled: Two youths, now fifteen and sixteen years of age, are by the judgment of this Court held liable to expulsion from the public schools and to denial of all publicly supported educational privileges because of their refusal to yield to the compulsion of a law which commands their participation in a school ceremony (Minersville Schools 1940, 601).
The decision affected many religious sects, including the Mennonites, Amish, Children of Israel, Church of God, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
To be consistent, several churches held that if it was wrong to force Germans to salute Hitler’s swastika flag, it should also be wrong to force Americans to salute their flag.
This decision led eminent jurist Archibald Cox to write that, in America—a country claiming to be a champion of religious freedom—“The principal victims of religious persecution in the United States in the twentieth century were the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
The outrage, riots, beatings, and killings that objectors endured were so horrific after the Gobitis decision that it was overturned only three years later by West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U. S. 624 (1943).
The decision held that the First Amendment Free Speech Clause protects students from being forced, under pain of severe punishment, to salute any flag or say any Pledge.
With this ruling the persecution of the objector sects was greatly reduced and, in most cases, ended.
This decision holds today and protects a variety of minority sects. We can be very thankful that the courts finally got it right.
Biology has confirmed that there are no races, only the one, the human race.
Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,800 publications in 12 languages and 60 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries.