Thursday, September 22, 2005

Bye Bye Civil Rights, Bye Bye Civility

General William K. Suter, Clerk of the Supreme Court, spoke last night about the Rehnquist Court. I went, hoping to hear what he thought would be the direction of the court now that two new Justices are to be confirmed. His only reference to this was to say, repeatedly, that Roberts was soon to take the job.

The gist of his talk was to paint the Rehnquist court as moderate or, better yet, defying the political categories of "liberal" or "conservative." He also regularly bashed the media for politicizing the SCOTUS, by its "results oriented" reporting of decisions.

I sat in the audience largely irritated with this speaker. I do respect that the family who brings these speakers; they choose them in order to represent a variety of viewpoints. I just found this speaker to be disengenuous. He wanted to talk about the court outside of a political framework, and emphasize how Justices are beyond politics and focus on the law. And yet, every example he gave (the girl who was "raped" wouldn't even testify before the grand jury--United States v. Morrison), the phrases he used to describe things (e.g. "retards" "race, class or whatever") made it clear where this man stood politically.

I think what really irritates me is the suggestion that reading the "plain meaning" or the "common sense" meaning of the Constitution suggests that the courts should keep turning cases like Lawrence v. Texas back to the states, the championing of federalism. I find this a convenient way to hide your real views. In Castle Rock v. Gonzales the SCOTUS claimed that women do not have a "protected entitlement" of police enforcement of protection orders. Jessica Gonzales' husband kidnapped her three daughters who were found dead inside his truck. Gonzales had repeatedly asked the police to enforce the protection order. They didn't do their job! Right? But the SCOTUS overturned the 10th Circuit decision, deciding this was a state matter. So, if you live in Colorado you can file a protection order against an abusive spouse, but its meaningless since you cannot ensured its enforced. I guess Jessica should go about changing the state legislature, right?

While it might be true that social change should come about through state legislation, the reality is we face all sorts of difficulties (and not the ones the framers had in mind): gerrymandering that deprives minorities (and even women) full represenation in Congress, state legislatures, or even city councils; a Republican controlled Congress and Executive branch; Voting rights violations, etc. Once Bush gets his new appointees on the court, every branch of government will be Republican and some shade of conservative. That seems to be to fly in the face of what the framer's had intended.

What is even more concerning, is how Congress can still regulate state decisions through the commerce clause (thanks to Scott Lemieux for clarifying this to me). So, even if we focus all of our energy on state legislatures, the federal government can strike down this legislation or restrict it, or make it rather useless. In the case of abortion rights, this is what is going on with the TRAP laws.

So, the ideal picture of what the SCOTUS should do and what Congress should do is a pipe dream. What is actually happening is a coordinated effort to roll back and whittle away at many of the freedoms that women and minorities have gained since the Civil Rights Movement. Suter argued that the fact the Rehnquist Court upheld Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey showed that this was a moderate court. And yet, what he didn't mention is that lots of state and federal laws have been passed since Roe that make it quite difficult for many women, including those who most need abortions, to obtain one.

What was the most disturbing spectacle at this talk, however, was the way three male students sitting in front of me treated a woman speaker. A older woman, with short hair and perhaps a bit overweight got up to make some comments. She began by claiming that the Rehnquist court decided every bankruptcy case wrongly. Suter didn't take the opportunity to discuss with her why this was the case. She explained that she had been a bankruptcy lawyer for 20 years. His only response, rather trite, was: "that is what is so great about this country, that we can disagree." I found this so hollow. Sure, we can disagree, but you didn't even allow a conversation that would demonstrate why you disagree with her. But, even more disturbing, the three male students in front of me started making horrific comments about the female speaker, one of them saying "shut up you dyke."

I started thinking about what my life will be like when I get older. I found this female attorney to be reasonable, forthright and assertive, the sort of qualities you want in an attorney. These young men in front of me found her loud, overbearing, and . . . a lesbian. I was aghast out how disrespectful they were. I can't wait to be a recepient of this sort of male hatred of older, smart and assertiveness. And, if youth and "attractiveness" are failing, you are certain to be called a lesbian.

UPDATE: I just found out that the woman who got up and spoke was the wife of the faculty member who introduced the speaker. I am even more outraged now.