The Supreme Court today ruled in favor of a firefighter suing the city of New Haven for denying him a promotion on account of his race (he’s white). In doing so, SCOTUS overturned an appeals court ruling from Sonia Sotomayor. Earlier in this session, the Supreme Court delivered two other rulings that might seem encouraging on the civil liberties front: the court decided that school authorities may not strip-search a 13-year-old girl as part of the all-important War on Ibuprofen, and the court ruled that defendants can cross-examine forensic technicians. (That latter decision found Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined by John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and David Souter — with a similarly mixed coalition of “liberals” and “conservatives” in dissent. Interesting that the two Dubya-appointed conservatives justices, Roberts and Alito, opposed the older conservatives on this question of state privilege.)
These might be considered three wins for civil liberties, and in the context of the legal system as it stands, they are. But should any branch of the federal government be telling the state of Connecticut what firefighters to hire or prescribing to Arizonans what a school principal may or may not do? It makes a joke of the notion of federalism that the U.S. Supreme Court can dictate policy at such minute levels. We do have state courts and legislatures to provide redress for these kinds of grievances (though they’re just as bad as SCOTUS, if not worse). If we must have a nationalized judicial system, it ought to rule justly, but this is not the way our federal republic is supposed to work. That knowledge should temper our celebration even of apparent civil-liberties victories like these.