My most conservative friend got off the ferry in a terrible mood. He stomped down that ramp, Joe did, roller bag skittering behind him, equally red-faced 14-year-old Joe Jr. just behind that. It was a Thursday afternoon in late June 2012, a few of us were gathering for a week in Hyannis, and one of us was already in a snit before we’d even done the grocery shopping for the house. I knew better than to ask, but I was the one to meet him at the ferry terminal, so the job fell to me. “Everything okay there, Joe?”
He did the angry expulsion of breath, the single little puhthat stands in for a mirthless, incredulous laugh when you’re performing righteous anger— see Jim Jordan for reference— and said “Uh, yeah, Roberts just screwed us.”
Indeed, the Supreme Court of the United States had just upheld several key provisions of the Affordable Care Act by a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts having written the majority opinion. By a single vote, my right as a freelancer to purchase my own health insurance had been affirmed. But this wasn’t, to Joe's mind, a cause to celebrate. (Nor even, now that I reflect on the moment, an opportunity for Joe to ask anyone else what they thought of it.) No, it was an outrage for ol’ Joe, because George W. Bush appointee John Roberts didn’t strike down Obamacare, a national health care plan so liberal it was piloted at the statewide level by Mitt Romney, whose individual mandate was so socialist it came right from the Heritage Foundation. It wasn’t that a strong legal mind came to a carefully-considered but frustrating conclusion, it was that a Justice appointed by a Republican president didn’t cast a vote for the right team. John Roberts didn’t Do His Job.
“Screwed us,” Joe Jr. echoed.
Boy, we had a fun week.
Eight days before the 2020 Presidential election, Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice. Donald Trump attended the swearing-in, the third of his Presidency. She replaces Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose trip from nomination to near-unanimous confirmation by a divided Senate took about seven weeks. Barrett’s confirmation, happening as a pandemic ravages the United States, was split along party lines and took less than four.
You don’t rush to appoint a legal mind who might surprise and challenge you, who might hand you an L once in a while for the greater good of the country. You rush to appoint someone who has a Job To Do. The notion that Supreme Court Justices have a Job To Do, and that the Job isn’t to analyze and interpret the law but rather to do the bidding of the team who appointed you, seems antithetical to the idea of an independent judicial branch, but here we are.
And since I am part of the we that is here, now, here’s what a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court means. Here’s where I am.
Since that beautiful, huffy afternoon by the ferry, I got sick. Out of nowhere. I lost weight training for a triathlon, and then I kept losing weight, and then I got weak and thirsty and tired, and on at least the sixth visit, my doctor ran my blood through the correct kind of blood test, and there it was: type one diabetes, in adulthood. Not as rare as people think. I got well fast, because it’s a condition you can manage with literal constant effort and monitoring and jabbing of yourself with needles. It’s also an expensive condition; a vial of insulin that cost $21 in 1999 cost $330 in 2019. It is now, for me, a pre-existing condition, one for which the Affordable Care Act ensured I can’t be thrown off my insurance plan. Right now, I have the right to spend roughly $900 a month to continue to spend more money on insulin, needles, glucose monitors, and all of the rest of the stuff I have to have within reach. Next month, I don’t know.
If you’re queer, as I am, your right to privacy within your own home in all fifty states is just a little bit younger than the average TikTok star. The Lawrence v. Texas case concerns two gay men who were arrested for “homosexual conduct” inside one of their homes, which was then a Class C misdemeanor in Texas. In September 1998. Pleasantvillewas in theaters. Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” was probably playing on the radio as they got hauled off to the county jail for the night. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, who upheld your right to literally not be thrown into the back of a police car for having sex inside your own home, thereby invalidating similar anti-sodomy laws in thirteen other states, in 2003, just a couple of months after Trista and Ryan found love on season one of The Bachelorette. Justices Alito and Thomas, both protégées of former Justice Antonin Scalia, have signaled their intention to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision that gave same-sex couples the right to marry, and Scalia called Barrett his favorite former clerk. Our rights are all brand new, and they’re all subject to change.
Also, we’re all living on and poisoning a planet that’s trying to shake us off like a wet dog, half of us stand to lose our reproductive autonomy, and tens of millions of us have already cast our votes in a Presidential election that the sitting President is already calling rigged. The shit is precarious. But for those of us who got some of the rights the rest of you take for granted by the virtue of some very close court decisions, the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett is going to hit a little different.
Sometimes in America, you get your civil rights because the stars line up the right way. You and your boyfriend get the same rights as your brother and his girlfriend because the right combination of lawyers put on their matching costumes and said the magical incantation. Whole swathes of Americans will never know what it’s like to have their dignity argued and decided on by strangers, to have it affirmed by the legal opinion of one single person. It can vanish just as quickly, with another stroke of a different pen.
Only some of us know what's that like. But all of us know someone who knows what that’s like. And I really wish everyone would fucking act like it.
I console myself thinking: Surprises are possible. Ginsburg herself was an independent thinker to the end; just this past June, she sided with the court’s more conservative Justices in favor of an oil pipeline under indigenous land. It’s within the realm of possibility that the Republican powers that be who pushed for Barrett’s confirmation are excited at the prospect of a wise, objective, independent legal mind in our country’s highest court, a person who might pull a Roberts and do the right thing once in a while. Maybe this isn't about rank partisanship, about getting your way forever by any means necessary, about the bullies finding one more way to own the libs. Let’s check in with the verified account of the GOP Judiciary Committee.