Court Reform

The Courts Will Never Save Us

It’s Time to Stop Thinking They Ever Could

Troy Brown

January 12, 2024

In 1968, Linda Williams was poor, and the state of Maryland was determined to keep her that way. Williams, a single mother of eight children, was out of work—kept at home with a debilitating illness. It was only through the checks she received every month from the Maryland Department of Social Services that Williams was able to keep her family afloat. But with those checks came a wrinkle. 

Under the State of Maryland’s own calculations, Williams should have received a check in the amount of $296.15 every month. $296.15 to keep her children clothed and warmed and fed. But Williams didn’t receive that amount every month. Instead, because the State of Maryland capped how much aid it gave to families—regardless of family size or need—Williams got less than the State said she needed to survive.

Williams, recognizing the injustice of being discriminated against for having a family that was larger than the State deemed acceptable, did what marginalized Americans for the previous 15 years had been doing—she turned to the courts for help. It would prove to be a mistake. Williams, just as progressives would do for the next half century, put her faith in the courts. At the time it made sense. When she filed suit, the Supreme Court had been expanding the rights of Americans for over a decade. But as Williams and progressives alike would come to learn, the Court was a shaky foundation on which to try to build a more just society.

Beginning in 1953, under the leadership of Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court became the locus of protection for those whom society had left behind. In the years leading up to Williams’s lawsuit against the State of Maryland, the Supreme Court had been taking steps, relatively small though they were, to protect the poor in the United States.

Throughout the tenure of the Warren Court, the Supreme Court had held that poverty could not be used to bar a person’s right to file an appeal in a lawsuit, that indigent defendants had a right to counsel, that poll taxes unconstitutionally discriminated against the poor, and that states could not condition a person’s right to receive welfare on the amount of time they had lived in that state.

By taking on headlong issues of race, civil rights, and economic inequality, the Warren Court came to occupy a singular space in the canon of liberal thought. In fact, liberal constitutional scholars and thinkers steeped in the jurisprudence of the Warren Court seemingly unified around a single critique of the Warren Court: that it didn’t go far enough. 

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the Law School at UC Berkeley, has written that, from a liberal perspective, the problem with the Warren Court is “that it did so much less than it needed to and should have done.” Constitutional scholars Geoffrey R. Stone and David A. Strauss have argued that “the Warren Court shows…that the Supreme Court can transcend partisanship and help fulfill the highest ideals of American democracy,” and that if the Warren Court had a consistent flaw, it was that it erred “often by being too cautious.”

But if the Warren Court provided a blueprint for advancing justice, it also provided a blueprint for entrenching inequality, too. As it turned out, a strong, nearly uncheckable Supreme Court could be wielded to advance the interests of the privileged classes. And that’s exactly what happened. By the time Williams’s case made it to the Supreme Court, it was no longer the Warren Court. Gone were Chief Justice Warren and Justice Fortas. Gone was a liberal majority. Gone was the hope of using the Court to advance justice.