Trump and Putin – A Grave Constitutional Crisis

What could be the gravest political and constitutional crisis faced by the United States since the Civil War is emerging with the news that the Russian government tampered with the recent U.S. Presidential election for the purpose of aiding the Trump campaign.

The question in my mind is, what happens if evidence is discovered that strongly suggests that Donald Trump was the knowing beneficiary of Russian interference?  What if that evidence shows a coordinated effort between Putin and Trump to engage in criminal activity of email hacking in order to rig or influence the election in favor of Trump? The outcome of such a revelation, and the ensuing conflict, is almost unimaginable to me.  I am not certain that the United States as we know it today would survive such a scenario.

What's next on the chalk boardSadly, Trump does not seem to be at all concerned about the appearance of impropriety in his ascendency to the presidency.  He brushes that entire matter off as ridiculous and instead denigrates the intelligence community as being completely incompetent.  His responses raise my level of suspicion and concern even higher.

It is interesting to note that the founding fathers were concerned about other nations meddling in the elections and the political life of the United States.  This is one of the reasons the electoral college was created.  Consider the writings of Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers 68 where he discusses the need for the electoral college as a protection against a hostile entity orchestrating the election of an incompetent person to the presidency.

“These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”

Many states have neutered the independence of the electors by passing laws requiring that they vote in accordance with the outcome of the popular vote in the state.  My cursory review of the limited case law on these statutes leaves me with the impression that the Supreme Court hasn’t seen this as cause for concern.  After all, the electoral college in this day and time is regarded largely as a bizarre artifact whose design and purpose is a mystery to most of us.  Never, in our 240-year history, have we needed the electors to examine the soundness of the voters’ choice. However, we are now facing a situation where it is possible that the electors may need to act to prevent the very harm that concerned Hamilton i.e.: a foreign power controlling the American President.

Of course, there is an incentive for many Republicans to wait until after the electors cast their ballots to deal with this crisis.  Once Trump is in office the remedy changes to impeachment, such as what happened to Richard Nixon during Watergate (note the interesting parallels of criminal election activity in both the current crisis and the Watergate scandal).  Impeachment would remove Trump, but would put Pence into the White House and continue Republican control of the presidency.

The problem is finding a solution that preserves the integrity and confidence in the American presidency.  I believe that the electors should refuse to cast their votes until this matter is resolved, and if the evidence continues to show Russian interference with Trump being more than an innocent beneficiary, then they should refuse to cast their votes for him.

This crisis is bigger than political parties, it’s bigger than policy differences, bigger than the differences that have so recently caused a deep divide between so many Americans.  All eyes are going to be on us as we try to sort out this mess, separating truth from fiction, and determining a pathway forward.  Without great leadership and deep integrity, I fear that the loss of faith in our government will not be survivable for the nation.  Let us all hope that I am incorrect in my analysis.

Scalia’s Legacy of Civility

The death of United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is an unexpected and massive change in the American legal and political landscape.  Consider for a moment the length of Justice Scalia’s tenure on the Court.  He was appointed in 1986 by President Regan and served for nearly 30 years.  His time on the bench spanned 5 Presidents.  He joined the Court while Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court Justice, was still a member and the first female justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, had only joined the Court a few years earlier.

It is ironic that Justice Scalia, who joined the Court during a time of modernization and diversification, has become iconic to many for being antiquated in his thinking and unreasonably rooted in the past.  For Justice Scalia, the answer always seemed to begin with the question, “What did the framers intend?”  It always seems to me that Justice Scalia rejected the idea that one generation should interpret the constitution any differently than the generations that came before it.  In legal circles he is what we call a “textualist”, that is, he looked, almost exclusively, to the text of the Constitution.  Emerging understandings of justice and human rights had no place in his analysis. When interpreting the Constitution, his approach was to always seek to understand the issue from the perspective of the framers and view the issue from the perspective of the 18th century.   His answer to injustice, as viewed from the modern world, contained within the Constitutional text, wasn’t reinterpretation based upon new understanding, but amendment.  I think it is fair to say that he did not see the Constitution as a living document, but as a static piece of writing.

I believe that the accurate perspective of Justice Scalia is to view him as a fundamentalist.  He did not seek out deeper meaning in the text, but simply viewed it at its most fundamental level, looking at little more than the simplest meaning of the text.  He was not one to look at the spirit of the language or the document.  In his opinions, especially his dissents, he writes as if problems of unjust outcomes are beyond his and the Court’s concern.  One can’t help but read is writings and wonder if he lacked compassion, or if empathy was lost at the expense of his adherence to dogma.

This is not to say that Justice Scalia never raised thought-provoking questions or persuasive arguments.  Many times I’ve read his writings in which he argued positions with which I disagree, but I came away thinking that he raised interesting arguments.  Sadly, I often can’t help but wonder if his arguments would have been more compelling absent his often denigrating statements about those justices and people who disagreed with him. 

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me about Justice Scalia is his close friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a justice with whom he rarely agreed.  This is really the quality that I most admire about Justice Scalia.  Regardless of his almost unwavering loyalty to his fundamentalist legal dogma, he was able to find connection with a person who completely disagreed with the reasoning that he used to define himself. In many ways, Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsberg were a model for the civility that should exist between lawyers.  Indeed, it should exist at some level between all people.  Yes, we may disagree, we may see the world from very different perspectives, but we have to look beyond that and see the commonality and the beauty that exists in our fellow human beings.

 

 

Truth and Reconciliation

Traditional South American Indians : a ClanDoes the United States need to consider appointing a truth and reconciliation commission?  This week I caught a news story about the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which concluded its work on December 15, 2015 to uncover the truth about Canadian mistreatment of aboriginal children and to seek reconciliation between the aboriginal community and larger Canadian society.  The occasion of the release of the report was recognized with a statement by Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in which he praised the work of the Commission, its search for truth, and affirmed the need for continued reconciliation.

This got me thinking about how issues of race and inequality continue to be problems in American society. From the multitude of press stories about seemingly unjustified police shootings of Black men to the recent U.S. Supreme Court argument regarding affirmative action in college admissions we see issues of race, inequality, and social injustice continuing to be a part of the American social and legal landscape. It amazes me that even in the 2016 Presidential campaign we see issues of race, prejudice, and fear continuing to be successfully exploited by candidates.

Diverse People Holding Hand Truth ConceptAbsent a national effort to seek out the truth of our history, it will be very difficult for our nation to move forward in healing the deep wounds created by a century of slavery (I’m counting from the nation’s founding; I recognize that the actual history of slavery in North America is much longer) followed by a century of Jim Crow and segregation, followed by decades of prejudicial policing and economic injustice. For most White Americans these issues are mentally relegated to the area of “Black History” with the implication that it’s of little relevance to them.  I wonder if it is in the labels that truth gets lost.  Maybe there is no such thing as “Black” history or “White” history, only a shared universal history found in whatever truth we can recover from the past. Slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow were not only Black experiences, they were an experience of all who lived during those times and are a legacy that all contemporary Americans have inherited.

Our search needs to be for something greater than a collection of facts that we call history, it should be for truth, no matter how messy or inconvenient it may be.  Truth is not about vilifying or shaming, but about seeing ourselves as honestly and accurately as possible so that we can find reconciliation and freedom from the past.  Denial is the product of a dysfunctional mind whereas truth is a pathway to healing from the dysfunction.

None of this is a novel idea.  We’ve long known that one of the most important steps for a person struggling with an addiction seeking to become sober through a 12-Step program is a fearless and searching moral inventory followed by an effort to make amends except where it would be harmful.  Religious traditions have long recognized that truth and repair are predicates to redemption. For example, this week I was attended the Friday evening service at Congregation Shomrei Torah and I read the following in the Jewish prayer book:

“You cannot find redemption until you see the flaws in your own soul and try to efface them. Nor can a people be redeemed until it sees the flaws in its soul and tries to efface them. But whether it be an individual or a people, whoever shuts out the realization of his flaws is shutting out redemption.  We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.”

Our national failure to seek out the truth of our history tethers us to the past. Sure, we all know the factual history that slavery and segregation once existed in the United States.  What is lacking is the visceral connection that comes through a “searching and fearless” inventory that reveals the truths behind the history. It’s more than just knowing the basic facts, it’s understanding the why, the how, and the impact. The stories of both the oppressed and the oppressor must be told and heard.

ReconciliationWhen used in this context, truth is not something that is defined by a particular group.  It’s not the property of the oppressed or the oppressor, but is owned by both.  Without truth reality becomes distorted and both the oppressor and oppressed suffer. Consider the bizarre reasoning of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who recently wrote that slavery didn’t strip the slave of his or her dignity. Such reasoning is the intellectual denial of the truth.

Having sought out the truth, we then seek reconciliation with each other.  As a lawyer working in the American legal system, reconciliation is a somewhat foreign concept to me. The system I work in proudly declares itself as an adversarial system where we seek to determine guilt, innocence, or liability, and then impose some form of retribution either in the form of jail or money.  Repairing the relationship between the parties is not the goal and is rarely achieved. Therefore, I find it tempting to reduce reconciliation to its most simplistic concept and regard it as nothing more than apology, but that’s incorrect. In researching reconciliation, I found an interesting paper on reconciliation in Rwanda by Eugenia Zorbas in the African Journal of Legal Studies in which she writes:

“Reconciliation is a vague concept. In the wake of mass violence there is no goal past which ‘reconciliation’ has been achieved. My premise is that legal (prosecutorial) instruments, striking political compromises, publicly acknowledging the wrongs inflicted on victims, and other measures, as ‘messy’ as they may be, are all more acceptable than doing nothing.  I label ‘doing nothing’ unacceptable first because of its ‘shocking implication that the perpetrators did in fact succeed’. Indeed, silences makes us complicit bystanders to the perpetrators of yesterday. Secondly, inaction is unacceptable because it leaves grievances, fears of reprisals, and cultures of impunity to fester, encouraging cyclical outburst of violence by the perpetrators of tomorrow… ‘Reconciliation’ is the umbrella term I will use to refer to this series of messy compromises, though it may be inconceivable or offensive to some, is thus the only sustainable and genuine form of prevention in societies that have undergone mass violence.”

c399f805-cd08-4fdd-97cc-21559c10f305In other words, we can’t simply declare the injustice over and then move on with life as if nothing happened.  Unfortunately, moving on without reconciliation has been the American approach to social injustice to date.  Whether we’re discussing slavery and segregation, native American genocide, or political persecution of communists and socialists, our solution has always been to declare the injustice to be unlawful and move-on. We outlawed slavery, then 100 years later outlawed segregation. We’ve outlawed employment and housing discrimination.  We’ve even outlawed laws that outlawed interracial marriages.  Yet not once have we ever engaged in national soul searching for truth followed by overt action intended to heal the wounds. In the meantime, we see repeat performances of the old demon of racism in our society.  Perhaps it’s not too late. Maybe if we seek truth and reconciliation we can end the denial and start healing some of the wounds that are festering in American society.

 

The Hostile Holiday Greeting

Happy Everything to Everyone written on wooden with Santa HatThis week I received a telephone call from a salesperson who was trying to sell me a product that I have no interest in or need for.  It was one of those cold calls where the sales person knew my name and asked for me personally.  I was polite, but firm, in telling the sales person that I wasn’t interested and asked them to please take me off their calling list.  I said goodbye and prepared to hang-up the phone when the salesperson says:  “You have a Merry Christmas Mr. Abrams”, which on the surface is not something I find offensive, but his greeting was delivered to me with a tone of contempt and hostility that left me feeling a bit stunned.

I don’t celebrate Christmas, the holiday is not part of my religious tradition.  But I’m not one who finds a cheerful “Merry Christmas” to be offensive.  I tend to use the phrase “Happy Holidays” when delivering my own season’s greetings because it feels more genuine to me.  It feels a little off for me to use the phrase “Merry Christmas” since it’s not a holiday I celebrate.

What I don’t understand is how the various season’s greetings moved from  social kindnesses to statements of division and defiance.   I’m not talking about the negative responses by the recipients of the greeting, but hostility on the part of the person extending the greeting.

For example, in recently weeks we’ve witnessed the  “Merry Christmas” greeting utilized as a political statement of defiance adopted by some politicians.  According to CNN, during a campaign stop in October, Donald Trump pledged to his supporters that he would always say “Merry Christmas” and that “…you can leave Happy Holidays at the corner”.

Closer to home in Harris County, Georgia, and perhaps even more divisively, is the story reported by the Washington Post of the local Sheriff, Mike Jolley, who posted a sign “welcoming” visitors that says:

“WARNING: Harris County is politically incorrect,” the sign states. “We say: Merry Christmas, God Bless America and In God We Trust. We salute our troops and our flag. If this offends you … LEAVE!”

I’m dismayed when I see things like this sign.  I’m left wondering if Mr. Trump or Sheriff Jolley understand that they are really changing the nature of the Christmas holiday and greeting through their statements.  They’ve unwittingly, or not, transformed the holiday from a season of good will to something that is much less inclusive and appears much more aggressive to me.

It’s oddly ironic the way people such as Mr. Trump and Sheriff Jolley are co-opting the Christmas greeting into some sort of quasi-religious patriotic statement. What they’re offering is something very different than the freedom we Americans aspire to.  Instead, they’re demanding conformity as a predicate to inclusion.  I wonder if either has really thought much about freedom, what our troops fight to protect, or the dignity that is bestowed upon all human-beings through concepts of religious sacredness?

I am free to be MELouis Brandeis, a United States Supreme Court Justice, during the challenging first half of the 20th century considered the nature of freedom and is quoted as saying:

“The right most valued by all civilized men is the right to be left alone”

In the end that’s really all most of us really want isn’t it? It’s not about “political correctness”, whatever that really means.  It’s about simply being accepted as we are.  Surely, in the land of the free, I can chart my own path and decide how to greet people and what holidays to celebrate without being invited to leave town?

Scalia and Thomas Dissents – What about Dignity? Part 3 of 3

In this final installment of my examination of the U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding same sex marriage in Obergefell vs. Hodges I examine the dissents of Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia.

Justice Scalia concurs with the dissent of Justice Roberts, but felt that it was necessary for him to write separately “to call attention to this Court’s threat to American democracy.”

Justice Scalia is quite famous for his scorching and snarky dissents in which he often resorts to ridicule of the other justices and their reasoning. In this dissent he doesn’t disappoint us in the least.   His opening is similar to Justice Roberts’ dissent in that he tries to create distance between his “personal feelings” regarding same-sex marriage and his opposition to finding a right to marriage for same sex couples. Justice Scalia writes:

“The substance of today’s decree is not of immense personal importance to me. The law can recognize as marriage whatever sexual attachments and living arrangements it wishes…it is not of special importance to me what the law says about marriage.”

In other words, like Justice Roberts, he’s trying to insulate himself from being judged homophobic by history. Having assured everyone that he doesn’t hate gay people, Justice Scalia then becomes quite melodramatic in his dissent. He basically accuses his fellow justices of destroying American democracy and taking over the other branches of government.

“Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.”

In classic Scalia fashion he accuses his fellow justices of “robbing the people of the freedom to govern themselves”. His argument throughout his dissent is really two-fold: 1.) This is a political question with no civil right involved.  2.) Marriage is a matter for the States and does not involve a constitutionally protected liberty interest.

It is interesting to note that although Justice Scalia criticizes the majority for failing to present a more developed legal argument, his dissent contains only the most minimal citation to judicial precedent. He repeatedly returns to the fact that only nine Supreme Court justices get to decide the case. However, he doesn’t acknowledge the dozens of District Court and Appellate Judges who, during the decisions giving rise to the present case, repeatedly reached the same outcome as the majority in this case. Indeed, only a small number of Judges have found that same sex marriage is not a Constitutionally protected right.

One very interesting portion of his argument arises during his criticism of his colleagues and the institution in which they serve.  Justice Scalia brings up an interesting, and I think important, observation regarding the lack of diversity in today’s Supreme Court.  “The Court,” he writes:

“consists of only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School. Four of the nine are natives of New York City. Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast States. Only one hails from the vast expanse in-between. Not a single South-westerner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count). Not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination.”

Actually, Justice Scalia is somewhat misleading in this statement.  His colleague and friend, Justice Ginsberg is a graduate of Columbia Law School, although she did study at Harvard before transferring to Columbia.  In many ways, this is a somewhat odd attack on what many feel is the most diverse Court in our history. Consider that 3 out of the 4 women who have ever served on the Court are currently serving. There is a Black male justice, of which there has only been one other. As far as we know, there are no homosexual Justices (Although it does appear that the only person nominated from my hometown of Tallahassee, George Harold Carswell, may  be the only non-heterosexual ever nominated). We have the first and only Hispanic Justice. He is correct that the Court lacks religious diversity. All current justices are either Catholic or Jewish, although historically 91 of the 112 Justices who have served on the Court come from a Protestant background. The average age of our current justices is approximately 70 years old. The lack of diversity in legal education is also concerning.

This commentary on diversity becomes more intriguing because later in the dissent Justice Scalia cites to the wisdom of a group of historic Judges who are hardly a diverse group at all:

“Thomas Cooley, John Marshall Harlan, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Learned Hand, Louis Brandeis, William Howard Taft, Benjamin Cardozo, Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson, and Henry Friendly”

Judge Race Religion
Thomas Cooley White Protestant
John Marshall Harlan White Protestant
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. White Unitarian
Learned Hand White Protestant turned agnostic
Louis Brandeis White Jewish
William Howard Taft White Unitarian
Benjamin Cardozo White Jewish
Hugo Black White Protestant
Felix Frankfurther White Jewish
Robert Jackson White Protestant
Henry Friendly White Unknown

In many ways that’s the irony of Justice Scalia’s dissent. He utilizes diversity as a weapon to criticize, but he’s not at all bothered by the lack of historic diversity in our legal system to whose precedents he believes we should rigidly adhere. He doesn’t seem to see diversity as something that is protected by the Constitution. Yet there is an uncomfortable truth to Justice Scalia’s argument that the Constitution doesn’t create rights to promote fairness and justice for a diverse society. Our founding fathers and ancestors did not see justice and fairness in ways that we do in modern times. Consider for instance that State laws prohibiting contraception for married couples were lawful until 1965. It wasn’t until 1981 that we got a woman on the US Supreme Court. Our nation didn’t even prohibit segregated schools until 1954. As recently as 1986 the Supreme Court upheld laws criminalizing gay sex. I can’t help but wonder if Justice Scalia thinks we should be bound to the past until such time as the electoral process provides an opportunity to vote for change?

Justice Scalia’s dissent argues this limitation of Constitutional protection by claiming that the Court should refrain from looking to the spirit, the intent, and the promise of the Constitution. The focus should remain only on the text. Justices should not read into the text any rights that are not explicitly stated. He believes that it is through constitutional amendment and not judicial interpretation based upon experience that change should occur. While I do not think this perspective is without merit, I don’t believe that for many oppressed and minority groups his perspective offers a realistic hope of justice and freedom from oppression by the majority group. Other than women’s suffrage and abolishing slavery, our nation has never once amended the Constitution to create a new right or to offer any group protection from any form of oppression.

Lastly, to conclude this blog post, we turn to the dissent of Justice Thomas who begins his dissent by rejecting the majority’s concept of liberty. He writes:

“The Court’s decision today is at odds not only with the Constitution, but with the principles upon which our Nation was built. Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits.”

Justice Thomas utilizes a definition of liberty that was written in 1769 in an analysis of the laws of England, the very nation we broke away from in pursuit of freedom:

“the power of loco-motion, of changing situation, or removing one’s person to whatsoever place one’s own inclination may direct; without imprisonment or restraint, unless by due course of law.”

He then conducts an analysis of liberty, as it was understood under the British Magna Carta. His reasoning for doing this is his belief that this was the understanding of liberty possessed by the framers of the Constitution. He spends a great deal of time in his exploration of “liberty” and seems willing to expand it to include freedom from government action. However, he claims that even with this expanded definition he still rejects the right of same sex marriage because he sees the right of marriage, along with the governmental benefits, to be about an entitlement to governmental benefits.

Justice Thomas points out that the petitioners are free to have whatever form of religious marriage they wish, but that in his view the case is about their seeking governmental recognition of their marriage and the governmental benefits that flow from that recognition. These may be valid points, but Justice Thomas doesn’t in any way address, other than by virtue of tradition, why the government can restrict its recognition of marriage to only one man and one woman. I’m left wondering, under Justice Thomas’ perspective, when can the government create benefits that are entitled to some people and not others? Could we create a benefit that is arbitrarily for men only, for people of color only, only for Catholics, etc.? If my understanding of Justice Thomas is correct, then he believes such would be allowed.

The final issue that comes up in Justice Thomas’ dissent is without a doubt the most bizarre piece of judicial writing that I have ever read. Honestly, I was shocked when I read it and it still seems like something you’d read in the Onion rather than a US Supreme Court opinion.

Justice Thomas begins discussing “dignity” and states that the US Constitution does not protect it. He claims that because dignity is innate to all human beings it cannot be impacted, positively or negatively by governmental action. He writes:

“Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.”

I’m at a complete loss as to what to say about this other than it’s got to be one of the most ridiculous and callous statements ever written by a Supreme Court Justice. In my opinion, the right to vote, due process, freedom of speech, and protection against unlawful searches and seizures are all rooted in a fundamental respect for the dignity of human beings. To view our Constitution as providing nothing more than a framework for the function of government to me is to strip it of articulation of our values. This ultimately denigrates the very nature of the document and the nation that looks to it for direction. I’m simply appalled.

In closing, this decision and the dissents, apart from their important impact upon American life, reflect many of the challenges and conflicting perspectives we face as our nation moves into the 21st century. In some ways, and it’s strange for me to admit this, Justice Scalia may have some valid points when he argues that rather than looking to our Courts to create new rights, we should be amending the Constitution. Consider that ours is the oldest Constitution is use in the world today and we’ve rarely amended it. With the exception of women’s suffrage and the abolishing of slavery, we’ve not amended it to create any new civil rights or end oppression in over 200 years.   We are utilizing a document that pre-dates the industrial revolution, any form of electronics, and mechanized transportation to run what is perhaps the most complex civilization in the history of the world. The question that will remain after this case is to what degree do we reinterpret and extrapolate to find meaning and direction, and at what point do we simply say that it’s time to amend or rewrite? My thought is that not do either of these things will allow us turn a blind eye to injustice and inequality as these concepts emerge in the modern world.

The Roberts Dissent – The Sky Is Falling! Part 2 of 3

In this posting I explore Justice Roberts’ dissent in the same sex marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges. I will deal with the dissents of Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas in a third and last installment of posts on this decision. I want to deal with Justice Roberts individually because I find his dissent to be more interesting and much more reasoned than the dissents of Scalia and Thomas.

The opening of Justice Roberts’ dissent is quite characteristic of the tone and balance that I feel he uses throughout the entire dissent. The dissent opens with the following:

Petitioners make strong arguments rooted in social policy and considerations of fairness. They contend that same-sex couples should be allowed to affirm their love and commitment through marriage, just like opposite-sex couples. That position has undeniable appeal.”

It is an opening paragraph that when I read it seemed to me to be an attempt to create a distance between homophobia and his argument that there is no Constitutional right to same sex marriage. The message seems to be that, while allowing same sex marriage may seem to be the right thing to do, what is right is not appropriate for the Court to consider. He immediately dismisses the arguments of fairness by stating:

“Whether same-sex marriage is a good idea should be of no concern to us.”

He returns to this concept of judicial restraint several times in the opinion with statements such as:

“It is not about whether, in my judgment, the institution of marriage should be changed to include same-sex couples. It is instead about whether, in our democratic republic, that decision should rest with the people acting through their elected representatives, or with five lawyers who happen to hold commissions authorizing them to resolve legal disputes according to law.

Justice Roberts argues that establishing the definition of marriage is an issue relegated to the States that should be resolved through the ballot and legislative process. While he concedes that the historical precedents of the Court view marriage as a fundamental right, he would have the scope of that right be decided at the state level. What he doesn’t do though, which is considered by the majority opinion, is consider the Constitutional ramifications of allowing marriage to be defined at the State level. He doesn’t seem to be bothered by a result where marriages are recognized in one state, but not another. Although he returns to the argument time and time again in his long and largely repetitive dissent, he never addresses how under his paradigm one reconciles the fundamental inequality that arises. Roberts either does not seem to notice, or is not bothered by, an outcome where for opposite sex couples, marriage is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution that is beyond the reach of voters or the legislature. Whereas for same sex couples marriage would only exist as a matter of statutory law, subject to changes by the voters and legislature, and without Constitutional protection.

Justice Roberts conducts an analysis of marriage and its historical roots. In my opinion this is probably the weakest part of his dissent. His examination of marriage is incredibly limited in scope. Regarding the reason for marriage’s existence he writes:

“It arose in the nature of things to meet a vital need: ensuring that children are conceived by a mother and father committed to raising them in the stable conditions of a lifelong relationship.”

Justice Roberts never explores the idea of marriage beyond what he claims is its biological roots.   He claims that this is the “singular understanding of marriage” throughout American history. He spends quite a bit of time over several pages making the argument that marriage is tied to procreation. He concludes this discussion of traditional marriage by conceding that the majority is correct that marriage has changed over time, but limits this concession by stating that the “core meaning” has not changed.

He never addresses the fact that we don’t limit marriage to only those who can procreate, or that recognition of marriage carries with it many benefits and privileges not associated with procreating such as who would be appointed as a natural guardian of an incapacitated spouse, intestate property distribution, etc. His writing completely ignores the reality that many couples marry with no intention of ever having children and that there is no less protection given to childless marriages.

When Justice Roberts addresses the Equal Protection and Due Process protections that underlie the majority decision he begins by again returning to the judicial restraint argument:

“Stripped of its shiny rhetorical gloss, the majority’s argument is that the Due Process Clause gives same-sex couples a fundamental right to marry because it will be good for them and for society. If I were a legislator, I would certainly consider that view as a matter of social policy. But as a judge, I find the majority’s position indefensible as a matter of constitutional law.”

It is from this point that his dissent starts to get a little weird. He looks to the Dred Scott decision as a justification for severely limited substantive due process (Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses) in which the Supreme Court struck down the Congressionally enacted Missouri Compromise on the basis that it resulted in a slaveholder loosing his property interest in a slave when they crossed into a non-slave state. He then basically claims that it was the Dred Scott decision that led to the Civil War and that the reasoning behind majority decision is analogous to Dred Scott.

Here’s what’s weird about this. The Due Process and Equal Protection clauses contained in 14th Amendment that were relied upon by the majority in deciding the issue of same sex marriage are post-Civil war amendments. They did not exist in the Constitution when Dred Scott was decided. He declares that  Dred Scott that was overruled by the Civil War, which is an argument that I’ve never heard anyone make in any context.

He accuses the majority of readopting the due process analysis long disfavored from the Lochner opinion, which involved the Court investigating whether or not a particular law was justified where a liberty interest is involved. In other words, the Supreme Court was acting to review the wisdom of a law rather than the Constitutionality of a law. All of this is argued in support of the overall theme of his dissent in which is he sees the decision as judicial activism.

“The doctrine that . . . due process authorizes courts to hold laws unconstitutional when they believe the legislature has acted unwisely,” we later explained, “has long since been discarded. We have returned to the original constitutional proposition that courts do not substitute their social and economic beliefs for the judgment of legislative bodies, who are elected to pass laws.”

One challenge that Justice Roberts faces in justifying his dissent is that the majority decision points to the numerous prior decisions holding that marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be restricted by the State without justification. Justice Roberts, in what appears to me to be a weak argument, tries to get around this by stating that none of those cases involved a change in the “core definition” of marriage.

In many ways, his entire argument comes to down to whether or not the state laws in question are viewed as a “definition” of marriage or a “restriction” on marriage. Justice Roberts appears to be with the majority when it comes to recognizing that the states face a high burden when justifying a restriction on the right of marriage. However, he believes that they’re free to do as they see fit when it comes to the “definition” of marriage. This is clearly articulated when, in distinguishing the right to marry cases, he writes:

“In short, the “right to marry” cases stand for the important but limited proposition that particular restrictions on access to marriage as traditionally defined violate due process. These precedents say nothing at all about a right to make a State change its definition of marriage, which is the right petitioners actually seek here.”

Numerous times returns to beating the long dead horse of Lochner in what is a lot of repetitive language covering arguments made earlier in the dissent. However, when he finally tires of arguing Lochner, he actually moves into what I think is the most interesting part of his dissent in which he asks the question:

“One immediate question invited by the majority’s position is whether States may retain the definition of marriage as a union of two people. “

In this portion of the dissent, I think he’s actually onto something. He points out that there is a strong historical basis for plural marriage and that the reasoning adopted by the majority could equally apply to a person seeking plural marriage. I suspect that he’s asking this question for the purpose of raising fears of the majority decision, but I do think it’s an accurate insight into the potential impact of the holding. Interestingly, he does leave himself an exit strategy should the issue of plural marriage come before the Court by stating: “there may well be relevant differences that compel different legal analysis.”

Justice Roberts closes the decision with several pages of what can best be described as “the sky is falling” rhetoric.   He claims that today’s decision will undermine the respect for, and authority of, the Court.   He even does so far as to claim that the petitioners in the case have actually lost in the long run:

“however heartened the proponents of same-sex marriage might be on this day, it is worth acknowledging what they have lost, and lost forever: the opportunity to win the true acceptance that comes from persuading their fellow citizens of the justice of their cause. And they lose this just when the winds of change were freshening at their backs.”

After accusing the majority of sullying the names of people opposed to same sex marriages, Justice Roberts closes with what I feel comes across as a very sarcastic ending:

If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it. “

I’m honestly disappointed that he decided to end with such a spiteful statement. Although I’m not persuaded by his arguments, he raises what I feel are some interesting questions and concerns. However, I find the issues he raises lose their dignity when coupled with his closing. Is Justice Roberts a sore loser, or someone who truly sees the role of the Court as so limited that it must ignore emerging concepts of justice at the expense of honoring tradition? I don’t know. Numerous times in the decision he explains that the outcome is not of concern to the Court because that is a policy consideration for the legislature. While I respect the idea of judicial restraint, I’m not convinced that our founders envisioned our Judicial branch to be little more than a potted plant that is intellectually impotent in the face of injustice. It is the refusal of the Court to act in the face of injustice through decisions such as Dred Scott, Plessy (upholding separate but equal), and Korematsu (upholding internment of Americans of Japanese descent) that have brought shame upon the Court. I do think Justice Roberts’ concerns about short-circuiting the democratic process are of legitimate concern whenever a case such as this is before the Court.  However, I don’t feel that he’s even begun to adequately distinguish a law that “defines” marriage as only applying to certain people from a  law that “restricts” marriage in a way that violates the Constitution.  I suspect, that if this could have been done, this case would have been decided differently.

Justice Kennedy and Same Sex Marriage – Part 1 of 3

It’s been about a month since the Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges in which it held that the Constitution protects the right of marriage for same sex couples. I read the decision immediately after it was published and I’ve been contemplating what to write about it since then.   Journalists have already written much about this opinion and I’m certain that the future will bring even more commentary by formal legal scholars. There is much about this opinion and the dissents that I find intriguing and worthy of discussion. In many ways, I see a reflection of the different perspectives of the American people in the writings of the Supreme Court Justices. Because of the complexity of the various approaches by the jurists in the opinion and multiple dissents, I’m going to divide this into 3 parts in order to keep this from becoming too lengthy and to better focus on the writings of the individual justices.

The 5-4 decision is the narrowest possible victory for the petitioners and the split decision is reflective of the societal split and legal difficulty regarding the topic of same-sex marriage. My experience has been that, at its best, the intersection between law and family is difficult. The law seeks certainty and predictable outcomes. It favors statutes and rules that can be applied uniformly to all that appear before a Court. Families and relationships are anything but formulaic. What is just and proper in one family, or relationship, might not be in another. However, there is a tradition among judges that wherever possible they will decide a case on the simplest basis and in the manner that leaves the law as untouched as possible. Despite all the talk of this case as being a historic groundbreaking decision, I believe the Court kept to this tradition, as I will explain below.

Justice Kennedy, author of the majority opinion, begins the opinion by examining the history of marriage. He notes that marriage has evolved throughout history and “has not stood in isolation from developments in law and society.” I feel that he treats the subject and the people involved with a great deal of compassion. He humanizes the case by reciting the backstories and struggles of the petitioners. The case is actually a consolidation of cases from different states involving 3 different couples, each with a unique and compelling story of the harm they suffered from denial of their request to marry or have their marriage recognized by their home state. This humanization of the issue continues throughout the majority decision with language such as:

“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”

It is important to remember that the role of the US Supreme Court is one of Constitutional Interpretation.   It is not a trial Court that decides issues of fact. Its fundamental role is to be the final decision-maker on Constitutional issues. Therefore, it is appropriate to ask, what does the Constitution have to say about marriage, a historically religious ritual often performed by clergy? After all, we don’t hear of issues regarding baptism or Bar Mitzvahs coming before the Court.   On the other hand, the marriage relationship, as is noted in the opinion, is a major part of American law with many benefits and privileges being granted through law to married couples. It is this dichotomy of marriage as both religious and secular that makes it such an emotionally charged subject. Interestingly, religion is mentioned in the Constitution, but the word “marriage” doesn’t appear even once in the US Constitution.

One might expect that the Court would decide this issue on the basis of religious freedom. That is, if a clergy person will marry you, then by virtue of your right to religious freedom, the state must recognize your marriage. However, the Court, I believe very wisely, didn’t base its decision upon religious freedom. To have decided the issue on the basis of religious freedom would have elevated clergy to the role of legislating marriage from their pulpits and created a de facto violation of the separation of church and state.

The Court decided the issue based upon the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses contained 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which is familiar territory for the Court when deciding issues of family life. The Constitutional text that the Court considered is:

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

While marriage is not a mentioned in the Constitution, the Supreme Court long ago determined that marriage is a fundamental right that must be highly protected against government intrusion. The Court has used this reasoning in prior cases to conclude that state laws restricting marriage based upon race, prohibiting marriage for inmates, laws restricting the right of marriage for fathers with unpaid child support were all unconstitutional. The opinion plainly states that the Court does not see itself as creating a new marriage right, but as affirming a deepened understanding of an existing right. Justice Kennedy writes:

“The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest. With that knowledge must come the recognition that laws excluding same-sex couples from the marriage right impose stigma and injury of the kind prohibited by our basic charter.”

In other words, the concept of liberty and equality in the United States is not static, but changes as our understanding and insight expands. The Court gives an excellent example of this concept of emerging understanding by discussing the abolition of the laws that treated married women unequally known as the “doctrine of coveture”. Historically, married women in the United States lacked legal capacity, they were considered subjects of their husbands, and all their property belonged to their husbands. Contracts by married women were unenforceable unless her husband ratified the contract.  Such laws persisted in our country up through 1981 when the US Supreme Court declared them to be unconstitutional. As noted by the Court, if the Court had not looked to emerging insights of liberty and equality, married women in the United States would have remained subjects of their husband.

One interesting aspect of this decision that I expected to see but wasn’t included, is the application of the “strict scrutiny test”. In prior cases involving fundamental rights, the Court has utilized an analysis known as “strict scrutiny”. In this analysis, once the Court has found that a fundamental right is at issue, the State then has the burden of showing that there is a compelling state interest at stake to justify the intrusion upon the fundamental right and that the state action is narrowly tailored to further the compelling interest while limiting the intrusion upon the fundamental right. For example, if a state wants to remove a child from a parent it is infringing upon the parental right of privacy and it must show a compelling interest such as protecting the child from abuse. The removal must be no more than is necessary to protect the child, thus if supervised visits can be done safely, they must be allowed. I am not sure why the Court omitted the strict scrutiny analysis in this case. Perhaps, it felt this was unnecessary given the citation to prior cases.

Having found that marriage is a fundamental right that cannot be denied to same sex couples, the Court then discusses why this issue cannot be left to the voters through the democratic process. I will discuss this issue further when I address the dissent filed by Justice Roberts who argues this point quite strongly.

I believe Justice Kennedy could have ended the decision at this point, but I suspect he understood the controversial nature of the decision and the need to thoroughly explain the reasoning and scope of the decision. Just before ending, he addresses the issue of same-sex couples whose marriages are valid in one state, but not recognized in another. He describes this situation as “the most perplexing and distressing complication[s] in the law of domestic relations” and then describes the hardship and risk this creates for same sex couples. He concludes his discussion of that topic by stating “that there is no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character.”

There is another aspect to consider when analyzing Justice Kennedy’s writings.  That is, whether or not Justice Kennedy is writing for the present or for future generations.  The US Supreme Court has too often been on the wrong side of history and justice when it comes to issues of equality and civil rights.  The Court spent a generation upholding and defending segregation.  It upheld internment of Americans with Japanese heritage during Word War II.  Such decisions have not enhanced the historical reputation of the Court as a place where justice was found.  Justice Kennedy clearly writes this opinion from a position of enlightened moral authority.  I suspect that he has a vision of the future and he writes to bring the Court into alignment with the vision.

In the closing paragraph, the opinion returns to the aspirational language seen at the beginning. The language is much more akin to that used in a marriage ceremony than what is usually seen in a Supreme Court opinion, but I think it fits well with the overall compassionate tone of the opinion. I believe this paragraph will be of great value to future generations and I would not at all be surprised to see it become a part of same-sex marriage ceremonies. I think that, even if you read nothing else of the actual opinion, the final paragraph is well worth reading:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”