In My Own Words: Supreme Court decision by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Do you want this person to pick your Supreme Court justice? That’s the question some people ask when deciding who to vote for for president. Yet, over the years, Supreme Court justices have surprised the person who nominated them by following the rule of law, rather than the rule of politics. 

There has been a great deal of discussion about whether the Supreme Court is moving to the political right, although the justices under the microscope might take offense at that, saying they are just following their judicial philosophy on how to interpret the Constitution. Of course, sometimes ideas of justice change when the world changes. For example, in 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the court upheld racial segregation laws, saying that it was permissible to segregate people by race as long as the education they received was the same. (This became known of the “separate but equal doctrine.”) This decision was overturned in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which noted that “separate but equal” was rarely the true state of education. The reason for this ruling was the court’s interpretation of the 14th Amendment, which says, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This is why I’m applauding a recent Supreme Court decision. In the case known as Ramos v. Louisiana, the judges noted an inconsistent judicial practice. In criminal trials in almost all states, a jury vote had to be unanimous for a person to be convicted. The states of Louisiana and Oregon allowed for convictions as long as the majority of jurors voted that way. The Supreme Court declared that those laws must be discarded: the rule of law is now the same for all 50 states.

Writing much of the decision was Justice Neil Gorsuch, whose nomination to the court was so controversial. Yet, it was Gorsuch who noted that “courts in both Louisiana and Oregon have frankly acknowledged that race was a motivating factor in the adoption of their States’ respective nonunanimity rules” as one of his reasons for saying those laws should not stand. Whatever I may feel about decisions he makes in the future, this one makes me feel he’s spoken out against racial inequality and that deserves to be noted.

Do not deny anyone equal protection of the law: that’s something the United States has striven for without complete success. Note carefully the words of the 14th Amendment, though. It says “citizens of the United States.” It does not say only men; it mentions no age limitation; it speaks to no particular race, ethnicity or religion; it does not mention one’s gender, or whether one has no gender, mixed gender or is gender neutral. It only says citizens. If we were to depend on a strict construct of this amendment, then discrimination in all its forms would be outlawed. That interpretation would be one we all should applaud.