News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

April 18, 2020

The courts won’t save us from the pandemic

By David Cremins

We in the United States are no strangers to the courts dictating many aspects of our lives, from Brown v. Board to Citizens United. That trend has accelerated in the Trump era, with lawsuits heard by liberal-leaning benches like the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals often serving as the first and only line of defense against heinous policies. However, court interventions — even those we agree with — highlight the failures of our elected leaders and the urgent need for personnel changes at every level of government. 

On Monday, April 6, the California Judicial Council — a policymaking body composed mainly of judges and lawyers — issued two statewide emergency rules which will provide temporary relief to millions of Californians. The first order sets bail “at $0 for most misdemeanor and lower-level offenses,” and the second halts nearly all evictions in the state. Both measures will remain in effect until 90 days after Gov. Gavin Newsom lifts the state of emergency.

These rulings were necessary to bolster a patchwork of inconsistent municipal responses to the coronavirus. In the Bay Area, which has so far been spared the worst of the pandemic, uneven local leadership has nonetheless put medically and economically vulnerable populations at risk of catastrophic loss of life and livelihood. 

In Oakland, while the City Council passed its own eviction moratorium, Mayor Libby Schaaf’s main contribution has been the introduction of a privately bankrolled relief fund to assist some frontline workers, elderly people, and those struggling to make rent. This lackluster showing has left the safety of Oakland’s houseless and formerly incarcerated residents largely in the hands of state officials and advocacy groups. In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors, led by Democratic Socialists of America member Dean Preston, scuttled Mayor London Breed’s plan to pack houseless people into the Moscone Convention Center, which would have quickly become a hotbed of infection. Instead, the city will now push to rent vacant hotel rooms for immunocompromised individuals without shelter, following a statewide effort to do the same. Many anti-poverty activists hope these moves can be parlayed into adoption of life- and cost-saving Housing First policies to address chronic homelessness in California in the long-term.

The Judicial Council’s temporary injunction against cash bail for some defendants comes as county legal officials are working to reduce jail and prison populations. Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods noted, “People didn’t sign up and take a plea bargain, thinking it could result in a potential death sentence.” Sadly, this isn’t hyperbole. In New York state, lawmakers have rolled back bail reform as Covid-19 continues to rapidly spread through prisons and jails. The first death has already been reported from Rikers Island: Michael Tyson, who was locked up due to a technical parole violation.

Cash bail is always an unjust and inhumane practice. It criminalizes poverty, often leading to bankruptcy, job loss, and even death. And it shouldn’t take a pandemic to offer the hope of quality housing and relief from eviction to those who need it most. But, as the current crisis exposes and exacerbates fissures in American society, it also offers an opportunity to amplify the need for common-sense guarantees: secure healthcare, a living wage, and housing for all.

The failure of the government to provide these essentials demonstrates the frailty of our social safety net — even in one of the bluest states in the country. Shouldn’t we be grateful, then, that the California Judicial Council has stepped in where legislative bodies have fallen short? Not necessarily. Trump’s judicial appointments have made both the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts much more conservative, ensuring that they will respond even less sympathetically to progressive legal advocacy for years to come. And in the end, court orders are a poor avenue for crafting transformative public policy: they are inherently undemocratic, often counter to the will of the majority, and based in the law as it is, not as it should be.

That’s why it is critical for leftists to win elected office, up and down the ballot. Bernie Sanders has suspended his presidential campaign, but there are many promising candidates and incumbents (including Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) that need our support. We still have numerous opportunities to elect better representatives across the country, in this and future election cycles.

But electoral wins alone will never be enough. Once in office, even progressive and socialist leaders face the pressure of corporate lobbyists, wealthy donors, and party machines, making enactment of pro-worker policies extremely difficult. In order to tackle the challenges presented by the pandemic and other capitalism-fueled crises, we must continue to organize from the ground up for meaningful reforms that place people over profit.