Romney, Dred Scott, and the Supreme Court

Posted on September 23, 2020. Filed under: Politics, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

In March 2016, President Barack Obama moved to fill a Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Republican Senators, in the majority, refused to hold hearings for Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, Merrick Garland. The Republicans’ claim was that 2016 was an election year, Obama was finishing his second term and clearly could not run again, so the Supreme Court should not have an empty seat filled by someone who wasn’t going to be president after 2016. The new president, whomever that might be after the November 2016 election, should get to fill the seat.

This was an argument never before advanced in the Senate. Think about what that argument is: why should Supreme Court Justices be chosen only by an incoming president? The clear message is that presidents should get to choose Justices who agree with them politically–that a president should be able to shape the Court to do his political bidding. A president shouldn’t have to resign himself to fighting with a Court that doesn’t toe his line.

This is deeply un-American. In the United States, the judiciary is meant to be objective. Judges and Justices are not elected because they are not meant to reflect popular sentiment. As we say in one of our many posts on the judiciary and tyranny of the majority,

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule–the basis of democracy–ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature–Congress–cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

President Obama’s candidate was blocked by Senate Republicans nine months before the November 2016 election as “too close” to the election. Now, in September 2020, less than two months before the election, Senate Republicans are united in calling for President Trump to nominate a new Justice so the Senate can hold hearings and get the nominee confirmed before the election on November 3.

At first, Republican Utah Senator Mitt Romney seemed to waver from this position. But then he toed the line using words that echo those of a terrible moment of failure in our democracy: the Dred Scott decision.

Here’s a quick summary of this 1857 case from our series on Dred Scott:

In 1857, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, declared in its Dred Scott v. Sanford decision that black Americans, whether they were considered free people or enslaved, were not citizens of the U.S. and could never become citizens because of their race. Dred Scott was an enslaved man who lived in Missouri. The man enslaving him took Scott and Scott’s wife Harriet north to the free states of Illinois and Wisconsin, then took them back to slave Missouri. Scott claimed that once he and Harriet had crossed the border into free states, they had become free, as slavery was not allowed in those states. Once a person has gained free status, whether deliberate or not, he or she cannot be returned to slavery.

The Court found against Scott.. but not really. In reality, Chief Justice Taney declared in the majority decision he wrote that the Court actually decided that it should not even have heard the case at all. As we say in our analysis of Taney’s summary,

Taney began the opinion by citing precedent for upholding slavery, pointing out that slavery was written into U.S. law by the Founders. He then explained why the Founders were racist (as we would say; Taney certainly did not put it this way), and thought black people were inferior, and took this to its logical conclusion—if black Americans are ignorant and cannot understand law, they cannot be made citizens because they cannot uphold democracy. Therefore, the Founders did not accidentally omit black Americans from the definition of citizen, but consciously acknowledged that black Americans could not function as citizens. Thus, they did not ever mean for the definition of  citizen to be changed to include black Americans.

We see that Taney is actually avoiding ruling on Dred Scott and slavery at all; he is refusing to involve his Court in the slavery debate because he believes Congress should be the sole author of slave law. Taney says the Court’s hands are tied: enslaved people are miserable, Taney says, and the people enslaving them are despotic, but the law is the law.

Why not just amend the Constitution if slavery is wrong? Overturn precedent—the Court can do that. Here, in his conclusion, Taney will erase that possibility as well. Again, these are excerpts, and not the full text of the opinion, and all italics are mine:

“No one, we presume, supposes that any change in public opinion or feeling, in relation to this unfortunate race, in the civilized nations of Europe or in this country, should induce the court to give to the words of the Constitution a more liberal construction in their favor than they were intended to bear when the instrument was framed and adopted.”

Taney rules out the possibility that Americans realizing that race-based slavery is immoral (a change in “public opinion or feeling”) should ever lead the Court to overturn established law and legal precedent. Why not just amend the Constitution if we’re not all agreed now, in 1857, that slavery is justified because black people are inferior? Here’s Taney’s answer:

“…while it remains unaltered, it must be construed now as it was understood at the time of its adoption… Any other rule of construction would abrogate the judicial character of this court, and make it the mere reflex of the popular opinion or passion of the day. This court was not created by the Constitution for such purposes.”

In other words, as we said then, “Taney is saying that the Constitution can be changed (altered), but until it is changed, it must be obeyed (“it must be construed now as it was at the time of its adoption”). So yes, you can change the Constitution if you deem it unjust, but until you change it you can’t change it. And he’s not going to change it… because it hasn’t been changed yet.”

Taney concludes the majority opinion by saying that since black Americans are not citizens, Scott should never have appeared in any U.S. court, and so the Circuit Court was wrong to hear the case and issue a ruling, and the case is now dismissed.

Where does Mitt Romney come into this awful equation? On September 22, 2020, he was interviewed on camera about why he supported hearings for a Republican Supreme Court nominee less than 6 weeks before a presidential election but didn’t support them for a Democratic nominee 9 months before an election. Here is a transcription of his response:

REPORTER: Back in 2016 the message was “let the voters decide” – why not now?

ROMNEY: At this stage it’s appropriate to look at the Constitution and to look at the precedent that has existed over—well, since the beginning of our country’s history. In a circumstance where a nominee of a president is from a different political party than the Senate, then, more often than not, the Senate does not confirm. So the Garland decision was consistent with that. On the other hand, when there’s a nominee of a party that is in the same party as the Senate, then typically they do confirm. So the Garland decision was consistent with that, and the decision to proceed now, with the President Trump’s nominee, is also consistent with history. I came down on the side of the Constitution and precedent, as I’ve studied it, and make the decision on that basis.

…I prefer choosing those folks who are, if you will, strict constructionists, meaning that they look at the law itself, and the Constitution, rather than looking into the sky and pulling out ideas that they think may be more appropriate than either the law or the Constitution.

It’s also appropriate for a nation that is, if you will, center-right, to have a court which reflects center-right points of view, which again are not changing the law from what it states but instead following the law and the Constitution.

Let’s review:

Taney, 1857: “…while it remains unaltered, it must be construed now as it was understood at the time of its adoption… Any other rule of construction would abrogate the judicial character of this court, and make it the mere reflex of the popular opinion or passion of the day. This court was not created by the Constitution for such purposes.”

Romney, 2020: “I prefer choosing those folks who are, if you will, strict constructionists, meaning that they look at the law itself, and the Constitution, rather than looking into the sky and pulling out ideas that they think may be more appropriate than either the law or the Constitution.”

Both men equate finding the Constitution to be unjust with popular fads or opinions. The implication is that no reasonable, far-sighted, intelligent person would ever find the Constitution to be unjust, so anyone who wants to change it is a nut who probably has lots of crazy ideas. The judiciary will not stoop to that. This despite the clear role laid out in the Constitution for the judicial branch to analyze U.S. laws and amend any that are unjust.

But it’s even worse in Romney’s case, as the Constitution says nothing about this matter. There is no law about how to proceed with Supreme Court nominations to uphold via precedent or to change via the judiciary. Let’s fact-check Romney:

At this stage it’s appropriate to look at the Constitution and to look at the precedent that has existed over—well, since the beginning of our country’s history. In a circumstance where a nominee of a president is from a different political party than the Senate, then, more often than not, the Senate does not confirm.

What does the Constitution really say? Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2:

He [the president] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

There is nothing in the Constitution that says that “in a circumstance where a nominee of a president is from a different political party than the Senate, then, more often than not, the Senate does not confirm.” So there is not Constitutional or legal precedent for this. In fact, a quick scan of presidential nominations to the Court from Washington to Obama shows that there were completely extra-legal “senatorial courtesies” that Senators developed and observed, like letting Senators from Georgia, for example, have the final word on evaluating a Court nominee from Georgia.

We also find that most presidents who had one nominee rejected were able to successfully nominate another person who was confirmed. The idea that anyone a Republican president nominated would be rejected out of hand by Democratic Senators is a myth.

In the 20th century, we do find a growing trend of nominees being rejected on ethical grounds. Harding, Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan all had candidates rejected, refused hearings, or withdrawn for ethical reasons. Sometimes this was for the right reasons–Hoover’s candidate John Parker was opposed for his anti-labor and racist beliefs. Sometimes it was for the wrong reasons–Eisenhower’s candidate John Marshall Harlan II was rejected for his “ultra-liberal” positions. But we often find that someone who was rejected once was later confirmed–this happened with Harding and Eisenhower in the 20th century.

Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that a sitting president cannot get a hearing for their Supreme Court nominee. There is no precedent for refusing the candidate of a sitting president a hearing during an election year. If we go down this road, we invite the possibility of saying that only a president whose party is in the majority in the Senate can nominate a candidate and get a hearing. This is not our democracy.

Back to Romney and his defense of “precedent” (even when there is none):

since the beginning of our country’s history… In a circumstance where a nominee of a president is from a different political party than the Senate, then, more often than not, the Senate does not confirm. So the Garland decision was consistent with that. On the other hand, when there’s a nominee of a party that is in the same party as the Senate, then typically they do confirm. So the Garland decision was consistent with that, and the decision to proceed now, with the President Trump’s nominee, is also consistent with history. I came down on the side of the Constitution and precedent, as I’ve studied it, and make the decision on that basis.

Continuing an error–in this case, allowing partisanship to thwart the purpose of the judiciary as a whole and the composition of our highest court in particular–is justified, for Romney, because the error is longstanding. Doing the wrong thing often enough transforms the error into a precedent that must be upheld–that is, into the right thing to do. This is a solipsism: the Garland decision was consistent with other unjust decisions so the Garland decision conforms to unjust precedent so I will follow unjust precedent since others have before me. He has not studied this, or he would know that the Constitution has no role here. To make a decision to continue an error is not a high-minded, lonely stand for justice.

When Romney says “I prefer choosing those folks who are, if you will, strict constructionists, meaning that they look at the law itself, and the Constitution, rather than looking into the sky and pulling out ideas that they think may be more appropriate than either the law or the Constitution”, he is insulting anyone who believes the Constitution can or should be amended. He is also channeling Taney in the purest way. Compare Romney’s statement to Taney’s:

No one, we presume, supposes that any change in public opinion or feeling… in this country, should induce the court to give to the words of the Constitution a more liberal construction in their favor than they were intended to bear when the instrument was framed and adopted… while it remains unaltered, it must be construed now as it was understood at the time of its adoption… Any other rule of construction would abrogate the judicial character of this court, and make it the mere reflex of the popular opinion or passion of the day. This court was not created by the Constitution for such purposes.

Finally, it is not, as Romney says, “appropriate for a nation that is, if you will, center-right, to have a court which reflects center-right points of view, which again are not changing the law from what it states but instead following the law and the Constitution.” The whole point of the judiciary, as we began by stating, is to adhere objectively to the principles in our Constitution–and its amendments--to ensure liberty and justice for all, and not to follow the will of the majority, support one political party or another, or say “the Constitution is perfect and should never be changed.”

There are many ill omens in 2020 that lead the historian to draw parallels to the precarious state our nation was in on the eve of the Civil War. This statement from Romney, and the anti-democratic, anti-American partisan perversion of the Supreme Court nomination process, is one of them.

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Obstruction or democracy?

Posted on March 27, 2017. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We keep hearing TV broadcasters asking Democratic members of Congress whether their attempts to rebut the Trump Administration’s platform isn’t just the same sort of obstructionism that Republicans were accused of during the Obama Administration.

In a discussion about whether Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation would be blocked by Democrats who a) were skeptical of his record and b) were protesting the Republicans’ refusal to give President Obama’s candidate Merrick Garland a hearing, a Democratic member of Congress was asked, “Isn’t that the same sort of obstruction of justice Democrats accused the Republicans of when they wouldn’t allow Merrick Garland a hearing?”

In interviews about blocking the Republican alternative to the American Health Care Act, Democrats are repeatedly asked whether their efforts aren’t just like the Republicans voting over and over to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act.

And discussions of the travel ban on seven Muslim nations have gone the same way: “aren’t you just obstructing anything the new president wants to do?”

The list goes on. We want to just step in to say no, it’s not obstructionist to stand up for democracy, liberty, and justice for all. Those Republicans who wanted to block expanded health care, a Democratic president’s Supreme Court Justice, and our Constitution’s ban on creating religious tests were all engaged in anti-American, anti-democratic harm. Those Democrats who are now trying to block reduced health care, the fantasy that the Constitution says a President can’t nominate a new Justice in an election year, and religious discrimination are engaged in pro-American, pro-democratic good.

It’s not just member of Congress of course; college students protesting the invitation of speakers to their campuses who promote discrimination and practice hate speech have also been accused of violating the First Amendment by denying those speakers their freedom of speech. But not all speech is protected, and hate speech is certainly not. Refusing to treat someone who promotes discrimination differently than someone who does not is not protecting fairness and equality, it’s protecting hate speech, and saying it’s no different than other speech in the guise of protecting, somehow, “diversity”.

As Kate Knibbs says, “The phrase ‘ideological diversity’ is a Trojan horse designed to help bring disparaged thought onto campuses, to the media, and into vogue. It is code for granting fringe right-wing thought more credence in communities that typically reject it, and nothing more.”

Let’s not let those who would violate our Constitution tell us that by standing up for it we are being obstructionist.

Next time: back–yes, back after all–to Obama’s farewell address.

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All civil rights matter: hats off to Clela Rorex for recognizing same-sex marriage rights in 1975

Posted on April 27, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , |

We just heard a great interview with Clela Rorex on the NPR news program The Takeaway. Ms. Rorex was a county clerk in Boulder, Colorado in 1975 when two men approached her for a marriage license. She gave those men, and five other couples, the licenses after consulting with her boss, who said there was no law against doing so, and that it was up to her to decide. You can read a summary of the interview here. It gets the point across, but there were some important omissions we’d like to fill back in.

It’s hard to believe that such important decisions are left to people’s personal discretion: to hear that a government official said granting marriage licenses to gay couples is not illegal, but that the clerk could refuse to do it anyway, is to hear a violation of our basic form of government. Innocent until proven guilty, legal until made illegal—that should be the formula. It’s the logical conclusion of our legal system. But we see it overthrown left and right these days, from individual pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control that violate their personal religious beliefs to Hobby Lobby employees refusing to help gay shoppers find products. Some Americans have prioritized their personal liberties over others’, creating a hierarchy in which one’s own personal beliefs trump the law.

And some Americans have decided to make this kind of prejudice and discrimination the law, thus avoiding any possibility that Americans who aren’t prejudiced might serve people the lawmakers don’t like. “Religious freedom” acts in Georgia, Indiana, and Arkansas are almost sure to be passed in other states before they are defeated by popular outcry.

Clela Rorex represents the kind of American we can all be proud of. Here is what she said in the interview that doesn’t appear on the website (as of this posting) when asked by host John Hockenberry what led her to make her decision to issue the license:

ROREX: This is where it kind of gets confusing for even me because people expect me to say something profound. The very core of me said, I’m not the person to discriminate if two people of the same sex want to get married and that was pretty much my thinking. …And I just made the decision to do it, I didn’t want to legislate any kind of morality, personal or otherwise. I felt that if the law did not prohibit me issuing same-sex marriage licenses, then I truly felt that I should do so.

HOCKENBERRY: Clela, you don’t think that’s profound?

ROREX: Well, I think I learned later that it was profound. …It was very simple for me. [It was] a question of am I going to be the one to take away such a right if this right exists? And I could never have lived with that.

Some Americans seem to make a career of legislating morality today; they often claim the blessing of the Constitution on their actions even as they violate the First Amendment that says the government shall make no establishment of religion in order to grossly expand the definition of “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” to mean that people can use their religion to strip other people of their rights. Taking away rights they don’t like is their bread and butter.

Ms. Rorex addressed this at the end of her interview, when the host rather callously said that the same-sex marriage licenses she issued were a “different spin on the mindless paperwork of a clerk”:

It was mindless paperwork… you just don’t think that someone in an administrative level of government really can be called upon sometimes to make important decisions. When you look at things now, with the Supreme Court soon to hear once again whether marriage equality will be the law of the land, you see administrative officials, county clerks and others, putting up all kinds of roadblocks to try to not issue licenses to same-sex couples. You see administrative officials saying they’re not going to change the gender on a driver’s license or on a birth certificate. It’s very petty to me, it’s petty. Government officials I feel get hamstrung with red tape and they should find a way around it. It’s not like you’re asking for the impossible.

She is generous to give these officials the out of saying they are hampered by red tape. We will follow her lead and go along with this explanation for all the personal decisions about what is legal and what isn’t and encourage everyone to educate any government official they encounter who does not understand the law and their duty to it as clearly as Ms. Rorex. The job and purpose of a government official is to administer the law, not set up roadblocks to it based on their personal beliefs and feelings. If a law is to be contested, and its constitutionality questioned, that must be done in the public forum of the legislature, not an individual’s lunch break. We all have a say in what is legal in this country; let’s all make the decision, as Clela Rorex did, not to take away other people’s rights in the name of our own.

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DOMA ruling overturned 2013

Posted on July 12, 2013. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. The majority opinion reads in part:

“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”

It’s actually not the clearest of statements: we’d parse it as “the federal law is invalid because it tried to disparage and injure gay Americans living in states that legalized gay marriage. Those states said gay married couples had the same personhood and dignity as straight married couples. DOMA tried to displace this protection, thus violating the Fifth Amendment.”

The Fifth Amendment ensures all U.S. citizens equal protection under the law. So if a state legalizes gay marriage, that means gay marriage has the same protected status as straight marriage.

DOMA, a 1996 law, “defended” marriage by saying even if you were legally married in your state, as a gay person you were not allowed federal benefits that straight married people received, from tax exemptions to being able to receive Social Security payments when widowed to Family and Medical Leave to care for a family member. DOMA joins other examples of discrimination enshrined as law in U.S. history, taking its shameful place with Plessy v. Ferguson, the Chinese Exclusion Acts, the Indian Removal Act, and others. Conservative politicians who decried “big government” and sought to strip the federal government of every power suddenly rushed to pass a federal law making gay marriage second-class marriage. Marriage laws had always been the exclusive domain of the states, but as states began to legalize marriage for gay Americans, these politicians had a change of heart regarding big federal government and pushed DOMA through to “defend” “normal” marriage.

As is usually the case in the U.S., a radical minority got their way through activism, but in doing so aroused the suspicion and then resentment of the majority of Americans, who saw that the principles of liberty and justice for all were being overthrown. Many married gay people took their protests to local courts, and appealed up the hierarchy until at last one reached the Supreme Court, where justice was done.

Not everyone was pleased. Predictably, Justice Antonin Scalia dissented, on dubious and irritating grounds:

“In the majority’s telling, this story is black-and-white: hate your neighbor or come along with us. The truth is more complicated. It is hard to admit that one’s political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today’s Court can handle. Too bad. …the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better.”

The truth is indeed more complicated than describing DOMA supporters as “hating their neighbor”. Many DOMA supporters act out of fear and ignorance rather than hate. But fear and ignorance open a wide door for hate, and that’s the problem with choosing to sympathize more with the fearful and ignorant rather than the supporters of blind justice.

Scalia went on to say that the Constitution “neither requires nor forbids our society to approve of same-sex marriage, much as it neither requires nor forbids us to approve of no-fault divorce, polygamy, or the consumption of alcohol.” The majority’s opinion, he wrote, declares “open season on any law that (in the opinion of the law’s opponents and any panel of like-minded federal judges) can be characterized as mean-spirited.”

This is beyond specious, and we have a feeling Justice Scalia is well-aware of that. No, the original Constitution does not require or forbid us to approve of same-sex marriage, just as it does not require us to make a judgment on slavery, racial segregation, or the collection of federal income tax. The Constitution does not address specific items like this; it provides a general framework of justice and equal opportunity that we are allowed to amend as particular cases come up that challenge that framework. The Constitution does not ask anyone to “approve” of anything. It asks U.S. citizens to uphold the founding principles of this nation, applying those general principles as described in the Constitution to whatever specific cases may arise in our own times. Perhaps there are Americans who would have described “whites only” and “coloreds only” facilities not as unjust but as “mean-spirited”. Those people would never have brought Brown v. Board to court. It’s those Americans who saw racial segregation as a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment who brought that case, and it’s the same type of American who brought the DOMA case—Americans who want being American to mean something; to represent a high standard of justice.

Scalia almost approaches a justifiable complaint in one way: many news commentators we heard reporting this case claimed that public opinion, having swung so profoundly from homophobia to support or at least acceptance of homosexuality, must have an impact on the Justices’ decision. This is untrue, and a very un-American attitude. As we point out in many posts, notably “The judiciary saves us from the tyranny of the majority”, the Courts are supposed to ignore public opinion. If they did not, we would most likely not be enjoying Brown v. Board and other Supreme Court rulings that went against prejudiced majority opinion. Most Americans were not completely supportive of Miranda v. Arizona—why should someone the police “know” committed a crime be allowed to have a lawyer present before they are questioned? Most Americans did not support Tinker v. Des Moines—why should kids in public schools be allowed to wear political protest items of clothing? Majority opinion is not meant to be a guide for the courts because the majority often tyrannize the minority, depriving them of their civil rights simply because they can. The courts protect that minority population of Americans who want women to be able to vote, schools to be desegregated, or poll taxes and other barriers to voting to be abolished.

Once the minority wins out in the name of justice, the majority usually goes along within a generation or two, and we have an improved nation. In Windsor v. United States, the June 2013 case ending DOMA, we may have less of a hill to climb in that respect. For now, we can all take pride in our system and let this case remind us that while our journey toward upholding our founding principles is never on a clear upward trajectory, and rulings like the one striking down the key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, also delivered June 2013, will happen, we must remain determined to keep fighting for justice. We, like Edith Windsor, must maintain our confidence that in the United States, justice will eventually be done—or else it won’t be.

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Gay marriage and the tyranny of the majority—no more?

Posted on March 25, 2013. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Yes, it’s the seventh appearance of this post, which we run each time the issue of gay marriage comes up in high court in the U.S. The first time was back on May 21, 2008, when California’s Supreme Court decided that banning gay marriage was unconstitutional. The original point was that whenever a court overturns a law, there are always those who squawk—incorrectly—that it has overstepped its authority. The judiciary in the U.S. is meant to overturn laws, even laws with great popular support, that are unconstitutional because they restrict peoples’ liberty for no good reason.

Overturning bans on gay marriage started out as an example of thwarting this “tyranny of the majority”, as de Tocqueville called it, but now that the majority of Americans support or do not care to ban gay marriage, this type of legislation is becoming a rebuke to tyranny of the minority. That’s heartening.

Here is the original post, resurfacing now as we circle back to California. The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to that original California ruling that made banning gay marriage illegal in the state:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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The Voting Rights Act under attack

Posted on March 11, 2013. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , , |

The Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments to strike down sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This has been a top news story, particularly after Justice Antonin Scalia called the VRA itself (not just the sections in question) a “racial entitlement”. Let’s look at the VRA of 1965 and the debate over it in the Court.

The VRA was passed in 1965 as part of President Johnson’s civil rights legislation. The U.S. Department of Justice website describes it this way: “Pursuant to the Act, the Voting Section undertakes investigations and litigation throughout the United States and its territories, conducts administrative review of changes in voting practices and procedures in certain jurisdictions, and monitors elections in various parts of the country.” This means that voting procedures anywhere in the U.S. can be reviewed, especially when those procedures are changed, and that elections can be monitored to make sure they are fair. Notice the language goes from the entire U.S. and its territories to “certain jurisdictions”—this was originally directed at the southern states, where repression of black voters was well-documented. The Act does not say “southern states” because its authors knew that while it was the south that had a demonstrable problem with fair elections in 1965, the problem could crop up anywhere else at any time. So wherever unfair elections were discovered, those “certain jurisdictions” would come under scrutiny.

Sections 2, 4 and 5 of the Act are the most critical. Section 2 forbids race discrimination in poll worker hiring, voter registration, and redistricting plans. Section 4 sets out the criteria for determining when a jurisdiction is violating fair elections and voting. And Section 5 states that once your state or territory has been designated as problematic and unfair in its voting and election process, any change with respect to voting there can’t be legally enforced until it’s been reviewed by the U.S. District Court or Attorney General. Any jurisdiction with a proven history of voting discrimination had to prove that the change being proposed is not discriminatory—not just another attempt to prevent minorities from voting freely. The jurisdiction has to prove the absence of racial discrimination, and if it can’t, the proposed change cannot be made law. If the suspect jurisdiction can prove that it has gone 10 years without any voter discrimination, it is no longer subject to Section 5.

The key word in all this, of course, is proof. The suspect locale has to prove it is not discriminatory. This represents a rejection of the federal government’s traditional tactic, post-Reconstruction, of listening to southern political leaders say everything was just fine and there was no threatening or lynching of black voters and saying, Great—that’s good news.

The VRA as a whole has been re-approved by Congress several times, most recently in 2006, when it passed by a vote of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House. At that time, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the VRA was “an effective tool in protecting a right that is fundamental to our democracy.”

But in the summer of 2012, Shelby County, Georgia, challenged the 2006 reauthorization, saying that Congress had exceeded its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and violated the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the United States Constitution. To quote from SCOTUS Blog:

“…lawyer Bert Rein, representing Shelby County in its challenge to the statute… began by reminding the Court of its 2009 decision in Northwest Austin Municipal Utilities District No. 1 v. Holder, in which it acknowledged that “the South had changed” and “questioned whether current remedial needs justified” the costs – both financial and to the jurisdictions’ autonomy – of the pre-clearance requirement.  But Justice Sonia Sotomayor quickly jumped in, observing that even if the South as a whole has changed, Shelby County itself has not.  Because Shelby County’s track record of discrimination at the polls remains poor, she suggested, it ‘may be the wrong party bringing this’ case.”

In short, Shelby County said the VRA was outdated and permanently labeled the south as racist, violating the south’s right to equal protection and due process under the law. Justice Sotomayor said this was not about the past but about the present, as Shelby County could not prove it was not discriminatory at the moment, in 2012. Between 1984 and 2010, Shelby County underwent a shift from majority Democratic to Republican, and in 2010 100% of all elected county officials were Republican. The county has not proved that this is the result of the free will of all voters, regardless of race, and not election fraud or voter intimidation, and so it must remain subject to Section 5 of the VRA.

The Court began hearing arguments in the case on February 27, 2013. This was the day Justice Scalia made his controversial claim that Section 5 was a “racial entitlement”, but his 2006 run-up to that statement is even more illustrative of how he sees the VRA:

“The comment came as part of a larger riff on a comment Scalia made the last time the landmark voting law was before the justices. Noting the fact that the Voting Rights Act reauthorization passed 98-0 when it was before the Senate in 2006, Scalia claimed four years ago that this unopposed vote actually undermines the law: ‘The Israeli supreme court, the Sanhedrin, used to have a rule that if the death penalty was pronounced unanimously, it was invalid, because there must be something wrong there.’

“That was an unusual comment when it was made, but Scalia’s expansion on it today raises concerns that his suspicion of the Act is rooted much more in racial resentment than in a general distrust of unanimous votes. Scalia noted when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965, it passed over 19 dissenters. In subsequent reauthorizations, the number of dissenters diminished, until it passed the Senate without dissent seven years ago. Scalia’s comments suggested that this occurred, not because of a growing national consensus that racial disenfranchisement is unacceptable, but because lawmakers are too afraid to be tarred as racists. His inflammatory claim that the Voting Rights Act is a ‘perpetuation of racial entitlement’ came close to the end of a long statement on why he found a landmark law preventing race discrimination in voting to be suspicious.” [our italics]

Here is Scalia’s 2013 statement: “[The VRA was] reenacted 5 years later, again for a 5-year term. Double-digits against it in the Senate. Then it was reenacted for 7 years. Single digits against it. Then enacted for 25 years, 8 Senate votes against it. And this last enactment, not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is pretty much the same. Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.

Scalia’s point, and that of most of the VRA’s opponents, is that the Act is no longer necessary, for two main reasons: a) the south isn’t racist anymore; b) other regions are racist but not being subjected to the Act. As we’ve seen, the Act is not written specifically for the south, but for any jurisdiction, state, or region that has provable voter repression and unfair elections. Yes, repressive new voting laws in northern and western states, usually strict voter ID laws, should be investigated as well… yet how can they be if the VRA is revoked? If the complaint is that all other regions of the nation should be equally suspect of racial discrimination in elections and should be punished for that, how can they be punished if the Act making that illegal is taken away?

What the push to revoke Section 5 and, one can’t help believing, the VRA as a whole, reveals is not a rejection of Civil War-era prejudice against the south but the very modern push to get rid of “big government”. Anti-VRA activists don’t want the DoJ involved in regulating and investigating state voting procedures. They want voting procedures to be regulated by the states, with no federal oversight, which is exactly the situation that made the VRA so necessary, when states violating fair elections were allowed to do that because there was no federal law to stop them. States with a history of racial discrimination in voting—whether it goes back to 1865 or started in 2012—have to be subject to federal oversight because they will not change their own laws.

We’re not sure if members of Congress voted to re-authorize the VRA in 2006 because they were afraid to be labeled as racist if they didn’t; we’re not sure that’s a bad thing. One would hope that being racist would always be a red flag in the United States, and something politicians would want to avoid. But we do know that there is a new trend in play, in which laws that have outlawed discrimination against minority populations have been called reverse discrimination, or revoked because they were successful. The latter is like saying, “Why do you take pills for your high blood pressure? You haven’t had high blood pressure in years. Why are you wasting all that money taking medicine for something you don’t have?” And if one replies, Well, if I didn’t take the pills my high blood pressure would come back, so the pills are preventive, the other party would say “So you’re paying good money not to fix a real problem, but to make sure a problem doesn’t happen? What evidence do you have that the problem might ever happen?” And one might say, My history of high blood pressure. And the arguer would say, dismissively, “History! You’ve got to respond to conditions as they are today, not spend money based on what happened in the past.”

But we would hold that a history—no matter how long or how short—of racial discrimination is a red flag, and needs to subjected to federal investigation in the present, to ensure the future. The fact that states all over the nation are regularly introducing discriminatory voting laws proves that we need the VRA, and need it to be more stringently enforced than ever, not that it’s time to realize that the south isn’t racist and the government’s too big and everything is just fine with voting in the U.S., and all the other claims being made in the Court and the nation as we follow this case.

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