In the United States, the Supreme Court has final say over whether any law is constitutional. So in a way it's the final barrier that prevents any legislators from getting too crazy or racist in the laws they pass.
But the Supreme Court itself is not made up of gods or wizards. They are just people, with agendas. And sometimes they have rendered opinions that make you wonder if the whole legal system isn't just full of crazy people from the top down. For instance, the court has ruled ...
#5. A Business Can Kick You Out of Your House if It Wants to Build There
Home ownership is truly a dream for many of us. The security of having a house to live in, building equity and owning a large enough floor plan to install the Batcave (it simply will not fit in a studio apartment) is second to none. It is your property, your sanctuary, and as long as you pay the mortgage, no one can take it away from you. Unless, that is, some corporation wants to build there.
You probably already know that there is such thing as eminent domain -- the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution mentions the taking away of private property by the government for public use (as long as they pay you for it), like if they need to build a highway or something there. But in the city of New London, Connecticut, seven homeowners had their property forcibly acquired by the government, and it wasn't for a new overpass or water treatment plant: Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company, wanted to build a facility there.
"The owners told us to go Pfuck ourselves."
The city council argued that it was really the same thing -- given the potential economic growth and the jobs the pharmaceutical company would bring into the community, the acquisition could be considered as being for the public good (this is the same line of reasoning Obi-Wan Kenobi used when telling Luke Skywalker that his father was dead, when his father was actually both alive and Darth Vader). The seven unlucky property owners who were forced to sell their homes and move thought this was hot steaming bullshit (one of the homes they wanted to bulldoze had stood for more than a century) and took their case all the way to the Supreme Court in what is known as Kelo v. City of New London (2005).
The highest court in the land sided with New London, because money makes you nod your head at inappropriate times. The homeowners had their houses taken away from them and demolished (and were paid an amount the government decided was fair) to make way for the pharmaceutical company. The company then heroically ran out of funds and didn't build anything, leaving an empty vacant lot that was eventually turned into a garbage dump.
Sometimes the greater good smells like rotting cabbage and coffee grounds.
#4. Scientists Can Create Life (And Corporations Can Own It)
Back in 1980, a genetic engineer working for General Electric named Ananda Mahan Chakrabarty artificially grew a new bacterium with the ability to eat crude oil, which is actually a really great idea, assuming the thing is restricted to oil spills and it doesn't get loose and eat all of the oil out of the wells. When he sought a patent for it, however, the courts were horrified. By law, living things cannot be patented -- that's the shit of dystopian sci-fi right there.
But the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Chakrabarty, saying that since the "composition of matter" was not found anywhere in nature, then a "human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter." Moreover, the ruling literally states that the fact that microorganisms are alive "is not a significant enough legal issue." So, to recap, you can patent a living thing, as long as you've created it specifically to defy nature. Clone a frog? No dice. Clone a frog with curling demon horns and black-veined leathery wings to serve in your personal army of supervillain henchmen? Totally legal.
"I shall call him ... STEVE!"
Since the ruling, scientists have created all kinds of genetically engineered punchlines like "self-destruct" plant seeds -- plants that are immune to certain herbicides, but will not reproduce. The idea is that farmers have to rebuy the same crops every year, and the seeds are sold by the same companies that make the herbicides (so if you don't buy your seeds from them, your crops will get the shit poisoned out of them like the little girl in The Sixth Sense). If anyone somehow manages to grow the same crop the following year without paying for new seeds, they are essentially duplicating a patented product and are subject to legal action, the very same treatment given to people who sell knockoff Ray-Bans and Coach bags from the back of a pool-cleaning van.
Again, since a seed that is immune to weed killer does not exist in nature, the Supreme Court considers all of this to be legal as balls.
That's actually the last sentence in Burger's written opinion.
These shenanigans aren't just limited to bacteria and seeds and other things that most people don't care about -- the "post-Chakrabarty" world has seen companies gaining patents of specially designed breeds of mice, chickens, dogs, cows, pigs, rabbits and monkeys. Again, these aren't just animals that are owned -- these are animals whose entire existence is owned, the very idea of them protected by intellectual copyright laws. If someone engineers a penguin with stegosaurus spikes and patents that abomination, you can't even draw a picture of it without getting sued. The Chakrabarty ruling makes no distinction, and instead puts the ethical burden entirely on the patent office, an institution that normally presides over drawings of fart whistles and Chia Pets in the shape of Barack Obama.
#3. You Can Imprison an Entire Race, if You Have a Good Reason
As you know, during World War II, the U.S. government rounded up every legal American citizen of Japanese descent on the West Coast and placed them all in internment camps, just to make sure they didn't turn on us and start spying on behalf of their old home country. This "Let's round up an entire race, just to be safe" plan was done while America was also at war with the Nazis, and the nation almost completely missed the irony.
"It's like raiiiiiiiiin on your wedding day-"
"Shut the fuck up, Linda."
You may be wondering how the hell this was legal, and the truth is that somebody did in fact ask the same question. Japanese-American Fred Korematsu sued over it, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court. And in Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of interning the Japanese. The idea was that the risk of Japanese espionage (despite never having actually occurred) outweighed Korematsu's individual rights.
The decision has never been overturned.
Now, we should point out that no one has ever tried to use the precedent since then to justify doing the same sort of thing (although someone could, at any moment). But here's where it gets weird: Every great legal advancement in the American Civil Rights movement, from the desegregation of schools to the legalization of interracial marriage, was made possible because of this decision to imprison American citizens because they looked like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor.
"Oh yeah, this kid is a clear and present danger to the Pacific Fleet."
How the hell is that possible? Well, in the decision, the court basically said, "Yes, you can discriminate against this race, but only because we're in a world war and the entire country is at stake, and this is the only solution that keeps us safe. If any future discrimination doesn't meet this standard, it's unconstitutional."
In legal terms, they were saying that any laws that discriminate in the future must meet the "strict scrutiny" standard, and almost nothing can. To pass strict scrutiny, a law must serve a "compelling governmental interest," be "narrowly tailored" to that interest and be as unrestrictive as possible. So while the court somehow thought Japanese internment met that standard, school segregation did not. It's like they were saying, "Yes, we'll give you this horribly racist law, but this is the last one."
"Please, please, please, just one more? It can count for my birthday and Christmas."
So, the same line of reasoning that ended segregation and the ban on interracial marriage can, at any moment (remember, it has never been overturned), be used to profile and imprison any race of American citizen as soon as the Supreme Court decides that they pose a threat to national security.