Alexis de Tocqueville first noted that “scarcely any political question arises in the United States which is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.” This is supported by James Wilson, a 19th-century American jurist, declaring law to be the “great sinew of government,” suggesting it to be a political tool wielded by the state.
In a nutshell, the law is a complex interaction of various conflicting forces that compromise the body of the government. This reinforces its problematic nature, advocating injustice and violence in modern society.
II. The Supreme Court
The United States Supreme Court is a prime example of this, having a concentration of power that enables it to declare final decisions on high-impact cases. To understand the breadth of its authority, the US system can be contrasted to that of its European counterparts, such as the UK, where judges are appointed by an independent commission and in Germany, where judges serve a maximum 12-year term with no re-election, unlike the US.
Article 2 of the US constitution provides presidents with the ability to nominate certain judges, allowing personal political views to triumph over genuine neutrality. Historian Rachel Shelden states that “partisan fidelity — not legal ability — was the primary consideration in presidents’ Supreme Court appointments.” Political scientists Andrew Martin and Kevin Quinn further depicted this in an analysis of current Supreme Court justices’ political leanings, finding a discernible conservative majority – 6 conservatives appointed by Republicans and 3 liberals chosen by Democrats. Despite its assertion of impartiality and non-partisanship, such ideological differences have a direct impact on the court’s rulings and are precisely when we see citizens’ civil liberties restricted, police brutality promoted, and violence enshrined in the law. To witness this in action, past events in US history can be examined.
III. The Past
In 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor as part of its invasion during the Second World War. This was an act that saw President Roosevelt pass Executive Order 9066, approving the use of blanket curfews and the relocation of over 100,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps. One survivor of these camps was Gordon Kiyoshi Hirabayashi, charged with violating a curfew and relocation order. He subsequently petitioned the Supreme Court, which found Roosevelt’s executive order to be wholly constitutional. Chief Justice Stone justified the law’s blatant racial discrimination as necessary “in time of war” as “residents having ethnic affiliations with an invading enemy may be a greater source of danger than those of a different ancestry.” The President’s discriminatory legislation and the Supreme Court’s rubber-stamped approval of it represent how state organs effectively endorse and encourage each other. Those relocated to internment camps would spend the next 3 years of their lives in an environment of anxiety, powerless to the legal and political forces at play.
IV. The Present
State-sponsored injustice preserved in the law is not limited to the past, however, following increasing police violence that culminated in the Black Lives Matter movement. According to Amnesty International, “all 50 states and Washington DC fail to comply with international law and standards on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers,” with nine states having no laws to regulate its practice. Additionally, barriers like qualified immunity protect officials from being sued if there is no violation of a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional law. Where a case is assessed before the courts, they display a tendency to favour these officials, making a successful prosecution difficult. Formed US Attorney Thomas P. Sullivan comments that “prosecutors work with the police. When prosecutors are now asked to indict and prosecute policemen, they are indicting people that bring them their cases.” As a result, different organs of the state work together, spinning the never-ending cycle of injustice.
One potent example of this is the murder of a 22-year-old black man, Amir Locke, by Minneapolis Policeman Mark Hanneman this February. A SWAT team entered his apartment as part of a no-knock warrant in search of his cousin, who was wanted over a homicide. Startled awake, Locke reached for his legally acquired gun, only to be shot thrice by police in just nine seconds. Prosecutors determined Hanneman to be justified in his use of lethal force, giving him no charge over insufficient admissible evidence. In a statement after the shooting, Locke’s mother, Karen Wells, poignantly proclaimed, “How dare you? You’re not above the law.” She is wholly correct; when nepotism and racial discrimination are so deeply entrenched in courts that have the sole purpose of delivering justice, it fails to provide just that.
As well as this, the laws and verdict stated above echo the term ‘politicised policing’ – the idea that police and politics are inevitably intertwined. The process of selecting new police chiefs, for example, is not a fully apolitical decision. Perhaps it is no surprise that Donald Trump’s response to Black Lives Matter protests – “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” – won him more support from police unions than Joe Biden’s liberal stance during the presidential election campaign.
V. The Final Verdict
Therefore, in a seemingly cyclic manner, all the various parts of the state – from the law itself to the courts that endorse it – contribute to state-sponsored violence in some form. Out of this, rampant discrimination fuelled by individual political agendas is institutionalised, corrupting the law and undermining any attempt at equality.
John T. Parry - Evil, Law and the State: Perspectives on State Power and Violence