What the U.S. Supreme Court Did to Us This Year

Key decisions by the nation's highest court eroded our constitutional protections of free speech and equal justice in ways that could have a great impact on the most vulnerable.

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Now that the Senate Judiciary Committee has voted along party lines to confirm Solicitor General Elena Kagan for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court (and full approval by the Democratic-controlled Senate seems like a shoo-in), a new chapter in the court's history will begin.

Kagan will join a court whose conservative majority has aggressively taken and decided cases that are transforming the constitutional landscape in ways that will have far-reaching effects. Some Supreme Court analysts have rated the court's actions in the just-concluded term as unremarkable. But for average Americans and for minority communities, the 2009-2010 term of the court is a significant one.

The court's review of several cases involving the Sixth Amendment is especially important. The Sixth Amendment includes, among other guarantees, the right to effective assistance of counsel, the right to a jury made up of a fair cross-section of the community and the right to an impartial tribunal. When the court decides nearly half a dozen cases involving this constitutional amendment in a single term, it can hardly be described as unremarkable.

The Supreme Court took other bold steps, too. The court chipped away at the landmark Miranda case. And then there was the decision on interpreting the Second Amendment and striking down limitations on corporate campaign donations. Indeed, some of the most important cases decided by the court this term demonstrate how the cases pursued (in some cases, aggressively) by the court's conservative majority, could have far-reaching implications for African-American communities. And in some instances, conservatives on the court have indicated that they may not be through reworking decades-old interpretations of key constitutional provisions in ways that restrict congressional decision-making, limit constitutional protections for criminal defendants, and that give increased power to corporate interests. As Kagan helps forge a new Supreme Court bench, the stakes will be particularly high. Here's is an analysis of some of the court's best and worst decisions this past term and their potential effect on minority communities.

The Worst Decisions

Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission: The Supreme Court reached out for this one, ordering a re-argument after initially hearing the case in the 2008 term, and instead deciding whether the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law on its face is unconstitutional.

In striking down the restrictions imposed by McCain-Feingold, the five-member conservative majority has invited a veritable free-for-all in corporate campaign donations and influence. More important, the court slapped back the efforts of a bipartisan Congress to stem the corrosive influence of big money in federal election campaigns. In doing so, Congress developed a voluminous record documenting the dangers of corruption and lack of public confidence when corporate money is given free rein in political campaigns. The majority of the court rejected Congress' findings out of hand.

One of the most disturbing effects of this decision, other than the obvious, may be the extension of corporate and special-interest influence on judicial elections. More than 35 states still elect at least some of their judges, and judicial elections have grown contentious, ugly and highly partisan in the past decade. Black judges may be particularly vulnerable in a climate where corporate and special-interests money has free rein in judicial campaign contests.

Wood v. Allen: One of the court's worst decisions this term can't be blamed on the conservative majority. In a 7-2 decision written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court rejected a capital defendant's claim that he received ineffective counsel when he was represented at the penalty phase of his capital murder trial by a lawyer who had only been licensed to practice law for five months. The lawyer regularly sought guidance and assistance from two experienced lawyers who had represented Wood at his criminal trial. The young lawyer assigned to the sentencing phase of the trial complained that he was in over his head and distressed by the lack of guidance from his experienced co-counsel. The inexperienced lawyer failed to put forward any evidence of mitigating factors about Wood's difficult childhood and mental deficiencies that might have influenced the jury. Instead, the jury sentenced Wood to death. The Supreme Court found no violation of the Sixth Amendment and concluded -- despite evidence to the contrary -- that the young lawyer's failure to present evidence of Wood's mental deficiencies at the penalty phase might have been a ''strategic'' decision. For criminal defendants -- many of them minorities -- who are often represented by underfunded and sometimes underskilled court-appointed attorneys, the implications of the court's decision in Wood are staggering. Only Justices Anthony Kennedy and John Paul Stevens dissented.

The Best Decisions

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