Oh, for a little straight talk now that spring is in the air

The political reaction to the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is the clearest evidence I’ve seen lately of the sclerotic thinking that passes for wisdom and strategy in American politics.  Not saying I’m surprised, mind you, just saying.

Don’t get me wrong: every vacancy on the Supreme Court of the the United States, ever, has been the occasion for political plotting and pontificating…that’s the nature of the beast.  Maybe there was more lip service paid in the past to observing “a decent interval” before going public, but we know that one reason the successful professional political players are successful is that they don’t let an opportunity to gain advantage go to waste.  In this case, Scalia’s body hadn’t made it home to Virginia before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his intention to block anyone nominated by President Obama in the hope that a Republican wins the presidency this November.

Why?  Because “The American people should have a voice in the selection of the next Supreme Court justice”?  Excuse me, Mr. Majority Leader and avowed Obstructionist-of-Obama-in-Chief, but that’s not the way it’s done and we all know it.

There isn’t—or shouldn’t be—any disagreement on the facts: the Constitution gives this president the responsibility to nominate a new justice in this case, not the next president; many of the same Republican senators now insisting that the process must be put on hold for the good of the nation had very different opinions when the question came up during the last few months of George W. Bush’s presidency.  (Yes, plenty of Democrats have more than a passing acquaintance with hypocrisy as a political tool, too, starting with Chuck Schumer on this same topic eight years ago; I’m sure some of you have more examples.)  Also true is that the Constitution gives responsibility to the Senate to approve or reject that nominee, with no timetable or deadline for doing so.

There’s no question that McConnell and the Republican majority have no legal requirement to approve President Obama’s nominee, or even to put the nomination to a vote.  They may make the political calculation that stonewalling for a year is the better path: bet on winning the White House and holding the Senate so they can have their pick of ultraconservative judges, versus running the risk of losing both and allowing the Democrats to choose another Douglas or Brennan (if one can be found).  I wish they would just say so, instead of going to the well for another round of the Obama Apocalypse that (inexplicably) plays so well with a certain portion of the electorate.  Andrew Prokop at Vox.com wrote them a first draft of such a speech:

Justice Scalia was a strong, solid conservative. And whoever Barack Obama nominates to replace him is certain to be well to his left — and will likely be very, very, very far to his left.

This would upset a balance of power in the Court that has existed for decades. Instead of a five-vote majority that is generally conservative, a Scalia replacement appointed by President Obama would allow a new majority bloc of five solid liberals to form. On issues affecting free enterprise, the sanctity of human life, and federal power, sweeping new liberal rulings could reshape law and precedent across America.

I believe this would be a disaster for the country. Most members of my party believe this would be a disaster for the country. And most of my party’s voters believe it would be a disaster for the country.

So I’m going to do my best to stop it from happening.

(snip)

…in suggesting that President Obama shouldn’t appoint any replacement for Scalia, and that he should just leave it to the next president, I am rhetorically going further than others have in the past.

But really I’ve just hit the fast-forward button. We would have ended up opposing whomever Obama nominated, because that person would, of course, have had liberal views. And my party’s senators would never have approved any other Obama Supreme Court nominee anyway, because they’re terrified of losing their seats in primaries.

So maybe my “no nominees in the final year” position hasn’t explicitly been taken by anyone before, but it hardly means the death of our constitutional democracy. The near-term upshot is that one Supreme Court seat stays vacant for a year. Some closely divided cases will effectively remain unresolved for a bit. Big deal.

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Get yer red-hot SCOTUS arguments, right here!

The briefs and the arguments for today’s Supreme Court of the United States hearing on the same-sex marriage case are available…go have a read and a listen, and we can all join the High Nine in deciding the case!

This is the stuff of history, kids…don’t miss it.

It’s a good news/bad news Friday

The good news comes from the Supreme Court of the United States, which has decided that it will hear arguments on whether or not same-sex couples have a right to marry. This New York Times story summarizes the cases from Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky that are at the heart of an appeal of a decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit which the High Nine have now agreed to consider.

The court said it will hear two and a half hours of argument, probably in the last week of April. The first 90 minutes will be devoted to the question of whether the Constitution requires states “to license a marriage between two people of the same sex.”

The last hour will concern a question that will be moot if the answer to the The first one is yes: whether states must “recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out of state.”

This is very exciting: within just a few months we’ll have a ruling from the country’s highest court on whether same-sex marriage is to be permitted in all 50 states, not just the 36 states and the District of Columbia where it is legal now.

Now, the bad news: the Southern Education Foundation believes that “For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families.”  The Washington Post has a good summary of the report.

Half of all public school students in America are poor?  Half?!  (More than half in 21 states; Mississippi at 71% has the highest percentage.)  I find myself surprised by this confirmation of how far the abandonment of our public schools has gone by those who can afford other options.  (Full disclosure: although most of my education was in public schools, I attended and graduated from a private high school.)  A free public education for all was a great example of America’s commitment to a society where everyone has an opportunity to succeed.  We all paid our share for public schools, even those who sent their kids to private school or whose kids had finished school or who never had any kids at all, because it meant a better-educated society and that was a benefit for all of us.

But more and more, people became unhappy with their public school systems.  When the quality of the education declined people got upset that their kids were being cheated out of their futures; in some cases it was court-ordered desegregation that made people unhappy with their public schools.  Many of those who could afford to moved to suburban school districts and took their tax money with them, leaving the city schools with less and less money to spend on teachers and books and buildings.  Which meant even poorer quality education, which prompted more parents to flee, and the cycle continued.

Today people are trying to get voucher laws passed that will in effect allow their school tax money to pay for their kid’s education in private schools, taking even more money out of the system that is the only resort for the poor, the students whose families can’t afford private schools or charter schools or anything other than the old school down the street.

I understand that parents want the best for their children; I get it that despite recent improvements our economy isn’t as strong as it once was and a lot of people don’t have the jobs and income they want and deserve.  Still, I’m saddened at how many people seem to feel that abandoning the greater good for American society—the education of everyone else’s children—is the best way for them to take care of their own.

SCOTUS dumps DOMA: fair, simple, American

Brown v. Board of Education; United States v. Windsor: do they belong together?  Yes they do: today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Windsor case is just that historic.  In a very specific and non-technical way Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion makes clear what the 5-4 court ruling says the Constitution requires: the “[Defense of Marriage Act] is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.”  You can read the professional reports on the decisions announced today here and here, and elsewhere, but here’s my take:

All people deserve equal treatment under the law.  If the federal government grants certain legal privileges to dual-sex couples who are legally married under the laws of their state, the same privileges must be available to single-sex couples who are legally married under the laws of their state.  Equal treatment; fairness.  The court did not rule on the constitutionality of gay marriage today; it ruled on an issue of equality before the law.  In refusing to rule on the Hollingsworth case regarding California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in the state, it sidestepped ruling one way or another on the constitutionality of gay marriage…perhaps another day.  But that decision does have the effect of re-legalizing gay marriage in California, making it state #13.

In practical terms the Windsor ruling means same-sex couples should be treated the same way as opposite-sex couples when it comes to federal tax law and Social Security and insurance and immigration, all that federal stuff.  In fact there are more than a thousand benefits coming into play here, and McClatchy does a good job summarizing that here.  And for fun, TV Guide summarizes the celebrity reaction to the rulings here.

This is not about what one religion or another teaches about homosexuality; this is about how the civil law treats American citizens regardless of their religious belief, or their gender or their race or national origin.  A religion is free to believe and teach what it wants about the morality of homosexual behavior or same-sex marriage, and its teachings and laws are important to the members in good standing of that particular faith.  But those teachings are not binding on Americans who are not members of that denomination.  The civil law, which orders how we all deal with one another in the secular society outside the confines of our many private clubs, is blind to such moral questions.  States have the right to decide who can “marry” and who can’t, and the federal government has to treat all “married” couples in the same way, regardless of the gender of the spouses.  Simple, really.  Fair.  American.  Congratulations, U.S.A., on another successful day at the office.

Gay marriage news, the Anglo-American edition

It was only in passing that I mentioned last month’s election results that put another four states on the side of the angels in the fight to legalize gay marriage. There’s been an important development since then: the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments in two cases on the issue, opening the possibility of a legal precedent that will apply to every state in the union.

Supporters of giving same-sex couples the right to marry are enthused, since this decision comes in relatively close proximity to (1) President Obama announcing his support for gay marriage, (2) another appeals court overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (Windsor v. United States), and (3) people in more states voting in favor of same-sex unions. Emily Bazelon writes in Slate with some great background on the two cases themselves, and offers a warning: don’t assume that because four justices agreed to hear the cases that there are five of them who will rule in favor of gay marriage. Conventional wisdom has it that the court follows the people, but I’m trying not to get overly optimistic: it could be that the justices who said yes to taking up the matter are predisposed to uphold the Defense of Marriage Act or to defer to states on the whole thing…and 39 of them have outlawed gay marriage either by statute or in their constitutions.

I wish we could get some of those states, or Congress, to think about this issue in the way Britain’s government proposes: legalize same-sex marriage in civil law, and make the clear stipulation that religions which object cannot be forced to perform gay weddings.

Face it: most of the objection to same-sex marriage in our country claims a basis in religious teaching. I sympathize with people who are afraid that legalizing a practice condemned by their religion would somehow infringe on their own religious freedom, although I don’t think that would happen in this case. But the core issue as I see it is not one of religious freedom, it’s a question of equal protection under the law. To try to put it simply, it’s not fair that only some citizens can enjoy the benefits of being married under law; if it’s OK for some it must be OK for all, assuming it doesn’t hurt society at large. And let’s don’t get sidetracked on age limits—we already prohibit minors from entering contracts—or possible plural marriages or bigamies, which might be seen to have built-in disincentives and punishments. (Remember the old joke—what’s the penalty for bigamy?  Two wives.)

Think of any given religion as a private club: no one of us is required to join that club but we each have the freedom to do so, and those who do join should be prepared to follow the club’s rules. If one club’s rules prohibit same-sex marriage, that is the club’s prerogative; but the rules of any one club or other are not binding on those of us who didn’t join the club.

The civil law is what’s binding on everyone in the civil arena, and it must be applied equally and fairly to all. The British plan makes it clear that each club/religion retains the right to apply its own rules to its members while inside its clubhouse, but that there is a civil law applicable on the broader scale to the rest of society regardless of the rules inside Club A or Club B.

So, there’s a lot to keep an eye out for on this issue, what with the courts and the lawmakers getting involved. There’s one more front, too, but in this case there’s a possibility that America’s emerging embrace of same-sex marriage, and perhaps of homosexuality in general, could have unintended and disastrous consequences. I refer, of course, to Choire Sicha’s discovery of just how gay marriage could lay waste to the quaint vacation industry:

Yes, America will have to rise up against the menace of bearded gay schoolteacher couples who like to weekend and all those inn-going lesbians with lawyers. With the end of small businesses in America, we’ll just go state-by-state and repeal these gay marriages and everything will be fine. That’s exactly how this will shake out.