Missouri’s own Harry Truman, faced with the Founding Fathers’ insistence on three co-equal branches of government, discovered the system to be maddening at times.
Early in his presidency, Truman had plucked a Texan from a lesser rung of the Justice Department, Tom C. Clark, to be his attorney general. The only question a reporter had at the announcement, according to a biography by David McCullough, was whether Clark had an “e” at the end of his name, such was the level of his obscurity.
Clark served for four years, and Truman rewarded him with a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, believing him to be a dependable vote in the judiciary.
In 1952, with workers in the American steel industry threatening to strike and the nation’s military needing the output for its efforts in the Korean War, Truman seized the steel mills. A lawsuit went quickly to the high court.
In a 6 to 3 vote, the justices struck down the president’s actions as unconstitutional. Clark sided with the court majority.
Years passed, and the incident still irked Truman. The biggest mistake of his presidency, he told a historian, was putting that “damn fool from Texas” on the Supreme Court.
Hey, happens to the best of them.
President James Madison nominated Joseph Story to the Supreme Court hoping he would provide balance to Chief Justice John Marshall and other Federalists on the court. Instead, Story voted in near lockstep with Marshall.
President Abraham Lincoln picked his secretary of the treasury, Salmon Chase, to be a chief justice. Chase ended up writing the court’s opinion against a proposition that Lincoln favored ... and that Chase himself had helped draft.
Of a somewhat more modern vintage, Dwight Eisenhower in 1953 became the first Republican president in two decades. His Democratic predecessors had placed a dozen justices on the Supreme Court.
He figured Earl Warren, a Republican and three-time governor of California, would as chief justice help swing the ideological pendulum the other way. Instead, the Warren Court ushered in a period of profound judicial activism. If Eisenhower had more hair, he would have pulled it out.
In a nation where “the rule of law” has become an oft-used phrase – but only subjectively, employed when politically convenient – these surprises tell a story.
The story got a new chapter Monday when the Supreme Court ruled that federal anti-discrimination laws, stemming from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, apply to the protection of gay and transgender employees.
Justices voted 6 to 3. Two of those in the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts, named to the court by Republican President George W. Bush, and Justice Neil Gorsuch, an appointee of President Donald Trump.
“An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex,” Gorsuch wrote for the court majority.
Plenty of people will react to this on what it means as a matter of immediate politics. It could mobilize forces on both sides of the issue in coming elections.
Closer, Missouri has dawdled more than two decades on a non-discrimination law. In the grand experiment of our republic, the state has foregone any sense of leadership and again shown itself a follower, and a reluctant one at that.
It speaks badly of our current period of history that Americans express surprise by some action where one citizen is treated like another. But let’s take it anyway, a surprise in the name of equality.