MediaWatch: July 1995

Vol. Nine No. 7

The "Slash and Burn" Supremes

Disappointment with the Supreme Court's latest decisions permeated media coverage as June drew to a close. "The United States Supreme Court unloaded several pre-Fourth of July bombshells today," Dan Rather began the June 29 CBS Evening News. "One of the biggest, a ruling that will make it harder for African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities to win elective office and a share of political power."

Time's Richard Lacayo expressed dismay in the July 10 issue: "When in a single day the court can rule against a black-majority voting district and in favor of public funding for a Christian student magazine -- and for good measure approve a cross erected by the Ku Klux Klan in a public park -- it can't be much fun anymore to be a liberal justice."

Some reporters claimed there weren't any liberal justices on the court. Washington Post reporter Joan Biskupic wrote on June 25: "In the current court makeup it is difficult to call any of the justices liberal, compared to William J. Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and Harry Blackmun."

On July 3, USA Today Supreme Court reporter Tony Mauro agreed, claiming "Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer form the moderate wing of the court, with none of them qualifying for the `liberal' label."

On June 28, Mauro called David Souter "a moderate who votes sometimes as a conservative, other times as a liberal." Ginsburg "replaced moderate Byron White with a similarly moderate vote." Breyer "is no liberal; he voted in favor of drug testing." But these same justices voted regularly on the liberal side of the major 5-4 decisions -- for racial gerrymandering and set-asides, against term limits and funding religious publications.

Conservatives remained menacing. Lacayo wrote that swing votes Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy "met up with Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas, the slash-and-burn conservatives."

Time National Correspondent Jack E. White attacked Thomas in a column titled "Uncle Tom Justice." White wrote: "The scariest of all hobgoblins may well be a fellow African American....Thomas has emerged as the high court's most aggressive advocate of rolling back the gains Marshall fought so hard for."

In a less emotional review on June 19, Los Angeles Times reporter David Savage noted Thomas's statement that the court took a "wrong turn" in 1937 when it used the interstate commerce clause to justify the New Deal's broad expansion of federal power: "To modern ears, his view sounds quaint, even bizarre."