One of the biggest cult movies of the ‘90s was The Usual Suspects, a heist flick that revolves around the legend of arch-criminal Kaiser Sose. Verbal Kint, a disabled thief caught up in a job gone bad has watched his accomplices be exterminated one-by-one when he pitifully tells the cop interrogating him that Sose is the devil himself—so violently fearsome that wiseguys the world over fear him, yet so shadowy there’s not even a mugshot to prove he’s real. The greatest trick Sose, the devil, ever played is convincing the world he didn’t exist, Kint says.
If you’ve never seen it, you may want to watch the movie to help put the current Supreme Court term in context. Conservatives have adopted a tactic for this term that would make Sose proud. Spoiler alert: All along, Kint and Sose were the same person, and it’s not until all his criminal rivals are dead and the cops have let him go that anyone realizes it.
Likewise, conservatives want to convince the nine SCOTUS justices that considering race in attempts to eliminate actually racists legal barriers to voting and education hasn’t existed in this country for the past 156 years, since the passage of the very first Civil Rights Act. They’re challenging that premise by bringing cases that would undermine the Voting Rights Act and Affirmative Action in college admissions and arguing that race neutrality is the only constitutionally-approved way to remedy legal injustices, which themselves were based on race.
Fortunately, new Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is a legal superhero who in her first full day of hearing arguments from the bench saw Verbal Kint for what he was: the devil himself. Jackson recognized that North Carolina Republican legislators’ argument that race-based gerrymandering required a race-neutral solution was in itself, far from being race-neutral. And she offered them a quick walk through history:
“I don’t think we can assume that, just because race is taken into account, that that necessarily creates an equal protection problem,” she said. “Because I understood that we looked at the history and traditions of the Constitution and what the framers and founders thought about, and when I drilled down to that level of analysis, it became clear to me that the framers themselves adopted the equal protection clause, the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment in a race-conscious way.”
Intelligencer summed up her point this way:
So it is especially perverse to hear the lawyer for a former secessionist, slaveholding state tell the Supreme Court that the 14th Amendment makes it not only acceptable but obligatory to run roughshod over the rights of Black citizens in determining how (and probably whether) they are represented in Congress. And it’s especially appropriate that the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court reminded him what “equal protection” actually meant — and means.
The devil himself, whether you call him Kaiser Sose, Verbal Kint or the Gentleman from North Carolina, will spend the next few months trying to play his greatest trick on all of us through the Supreme Court. Thank goodness we have Sister Justice KBJ who’s not fooled by his act.