The Cases Justice Alito Apparently Forgot About

The justice seems wary of tackling an institution “newer than cellphones or the Internet.” But, uh, what about these rulings?

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty (Alito), AP (4)

As the nine Supreme Court justices whinged and grumbled during Tuesday’s hearing on California’s Proposition 8, Justice Samuel Alito presented a grave concern: how can they possibly assess the potential effects of gay marriage? They may be a brainy bunch, but that doesn’t mean they can predict the future.

“Same-sex marriage is very new. I think it was first adopted in the Netherlands in 2000,” Alito said. “It may turn out to be a good thing; it may turn out not to be a good thing … But you want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution, which is newer than cellphones or the Internet?”

It’s an interesting argument, given that the Supreme Court has ruled on many cases dealing with issues that arose after the invention of cellular phones and the dawn of the Internet. These incidents must have slipped Alito’s mind.


Believe it or not, genetically modified DNA organisms are “newer” than cellphones—the first one was created in 1974, just after inventor Martin Cooper showed off his clunky Motorola telephone in 1973. That didn’t stop the Supreme Court from lifting a ban on genetically modified alfalfa in 2010 despite environmentalists’ arguments that contaminating conventional alfalfa fields could harm soil and breed pesticide-resistant “super weeds.”

“An injunction is a drastic and extraordinary remedy, which should not be granted as a matter of course,” Alito wrote for the 7–1 majority. The politicized discourse on GMOs has also been taken up by scientists, who argue that consuming genetically modified foods could be harmful to human health. It might take decades for these scientists to measure their health and environmental impact, but we’ll continue planting and eating them willy-nilly for now.

Online Piracy

Yep, the Supreme Court has ruled on online piracy—that inevitable spawn of Internet access. In 2005, justices ruled unanimously that software companies can be held liable for copyright infringement when individuals use their technology to download songs and movies illegally—a major blow to technology companies but a boon for the music and movie industries. (Several weeks ago, the highest court declined to take the case of a $220,000 fine for music piracy levied on an individual.)

GPS Tracking

GPS satellite launches began in 1978, but the tracking system didn’t become fully operational until 1995. Of course, GPS technology has made various leaps and bounds since then, many of which are controversial—despite the fact that all smartphone users track their every move with the system. In January 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for police to use GPS trackers on suspects without a search warrant.


More appropriately known as the Affordable Care Act of 2010, the pejorative “Obamacare” was coined by a lobbyist in 2007. It was swiftly adopted as a derogative term by Republicans opposed to the Obama’s health-care reform, and then celebrated by Democrats when the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in favor of it in June 2012. One might note, Alito, that many of the “new” law’s provisions hadn’t even taken effect yet.

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And, Of Course, the Internet Itself

The World Wide Web was essentially born on August 6, 1991, the day when links to the “www” computer code became available for people to browse. We can only imagine what the future entails for the relatively “new” Webbyverse, which has forever altered pretty much every aspect of modern life (welcome to the ’90s, Justice Alito.) The various Internet privacy, free-speech, and censorship cases that the Supreme Court has ruled on are only a taste of what’s to come.