Sunday, December 18, 2011

go to the source

We live in a technologically advanced, but informationally stunted world. We seemingly have all the information we need at our fingertips, but often lack the will, or curiosity, to use it to our advantage. We all too frequently fall back on letting someone else tell us what to do and what is true when we should be investigating for ourselves and making better decisions.

Politics is just one of those areas, but it gets a great amount of attention every four years at least, as is the case now. We are blessed in this country to be free to elect our leaders. In much of the world this is not the case and we should not take lightly the responsibility to make wise decisions as to who to support. The GOP debates may seem tedious and simply forums for talking point reiteration, but they can serve to help us identify what is really important to us, even for those who aren't planning to vote GOP.

It is more than just "fact-checking" that we need to do. We also need to check quotes and context. People tend to view speakers as "scholarly" or "expert" when they cite history and quote historical documents. But how often do these same people check the sources of the citations and quotes to see if they are accurate? Not very often in my opinion. And that can lead people to make very unsound decisions.

Case in point: during the latest debate Newt Gingrich was ranting about the judiciary and how it was damaging America with bad rulings...that it was out of control and needed to be reined in. He made a couple of really outlandish suggestions - getting rid of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (conservatives "favorite" court) and summoning justices before Congress to "explain" their "controversial" rulings. That was bad enough, but his rational was worse...and that (again) got overlooked in the analysis.

Gingrich is certainly no friend of the courts, but he covers his blatant animosity with a 'scholarly" sheen, by using quotes and making historical references to his advantage. Unfortunately, he often misquotes and takes things out of context. As a preacher I once heard said " a text out of context becomes a pretext". This describes Newt very well. I won't belabor the point or overwhelm you with examples, but let me just cite a couple examples.

He stated that the founders intended for the judiciary to be the weakest branch of government. He was referencing the discussion of the judiciary in the Federalist Papers, the collection of letters written by Hamilton, Madison, and John Jay, to persuade New York state to ratify the Constitution. They talked about the relative weakness of the judicial branch, but in a matter advocating protecting it's independence from the other two branches (executive and legislative), not subordinating it to them.

To quote Federalist #78 : the judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power ...it can never attack with success either of the other two..all possible care is requisite to enable it to defend itself against their attacks". They were not saying that the judiciary should be the weakest. They were saying that it was in the most vulnerable position and needed protection (like with lifetime appointments and a prohibition on cutting a justice's salary during their time of service).

Newt also said that the courts were not the final arbiter of the law. But, to quote the same Federalist paper "The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts" and "the courts of justice..whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the constitution void. Without this, the reservations of particular rights or privileges would amount to nothing".

For a supposed "scholar" of the Constitution to be this wrong is not accidental, it is purposeful. It is an attack upon the part of government designed to be the protector of our rights and should not be viewed as merely "crackpot". As a former history/poli sci major myself this makes my blood boil!

I would urge anyone to avail themselves of three resources which can be invaluable in combating, personally and collectively, the misinformation that is spewed out regularly by those who seek to influence our political decisions. Three links:

1. The Federalist Papers, if you don't have a hard copy (as I do)

2. The Constitution (you really should have a hard copy...and read it often)

3. Thomas.gov...where you can look up the history, sponsors, and full text of any congressional legislation...to find out what it "really" says.


With these three you can combat much of the disinformation being thrown out there during this political season. Don't let anyone (not even me) make your decisions for you. As the saying goes "God gave you a brain, now use it"

Sunday, December 11, 2011

ask the right questions

Once again we have a bit of humor in the presidential race , thanks to Rick Perry. At a meeting with an Iowa newspaper's editorial board he was criticizing President Obama's Supreme Court appointees, yet couldn't remember correctly the name of one (Sotomayor) and misstated the number of Justices on the Court. Surely a candidate for president should know these things. The filling of a Supreme Court vacancy is a vital presidential task and one that may arise during this next presidential term, considering Justice Ginzberg's health. While it is important that a candidate be accurate in these details , however, this is not what got my attention in his comments.

As we laugh at these gaffs we often miss the bigger issue. It is the wrongful thinking that is behind the statements these candidates make. Because Rick Perry is not alone in his sentiments, just the most visible at times. He used two adjectives to describe the Justices, used both negatively, when only one is true and that one should be viewed as a positive not negative.

He said that the Justices were "unelected" and "unaccountable". The first is true but for reasons I will explain shortly, this I believe is a positive, not negative characteristic of both the Supreme Court and the rest of the federal court system. The second assertion is definitely false, but you have to think harder than a "fifth grader" to understand the reasons why.

First there is the appointment and confirmation process, where the President and the Senate, representing the other two branches of our government (both elected by the people) , choose the members of the Court. Then there is the ability of a latter Court to overturn earlier decisions after review (see Plessy v Ferguson (1896) overturned by the Brown decision (1954) as the most notable example).

There is also the ability for Congress to pass Constitutional amendments to correct deficiencies in the law and render moot a Court's decision. Prime example of this was the 13th Amendment (1865) , outlawing slavery , in response to the Dred Scott decision . There was also the 16th Amendment (1913) ,passed to overcome Court objections to a federal income tax.

And there is the matter of impeachment. Just as for the President, any member of the federal judiciary can be impeached by the House of Representatives and face trial in the Senate, with conviction resulting in removal from office. Throughout our history 19 federal court justices have been impeached (including one Supreme Court justice) and several have been removed from office after trial in the Senate. So you see, the justices and their decisions are accountable.

The other contention, that they are unelected, is true. But I would contend that this is a positive characteristic, not negative. I have always felt that the election of judges, the common practice for state courts, was not good. Members of the legislative and executive branches should be responsive to the people. The members of the judicial branch, the judges, should be responsive to the law, protecting the people's rights. All rights, not just the majority.

When cases reach the federal courts the stakes are higher. The rulings will often affect many people from multiple states (the health care reform cases are one example) and the questions reach to the core of fundamental rights and freedoms. Also, the issues may invoke alleged overreach by the executive or legislative branches of the federal government. The courts must have the independence to rule against either branch if the case warrants. A lifetime appointment guarantees this.

Our rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution involve the right to be unpopular. To voice unpopular views, have unpopular beliefs, to gather with unpopular people to advocate unpopular causes. Popular opinions do not need protection. Majority views do not need special protection. They are protected by their own popularity. But minority opinions, like minority populations, are vulnerable to the "tyranny of the majority", and need safeguarding by a court system where judges are free to make the "unpopular" decision to defend them.

Our history as a country is one of evolving protection for minority populations and views, expanding our understanding of what it means to be free, and challenging ourselves to open our minds to the truth that if anyone's freedom is curtailed we all suffer. We cannot go backward. We must stay vigilant. Rick Perry is not alone in his skewed views on the Court…his fellow GOP candidates all share basically the same views. We must hold them "accountable" for these and render them all "unelected"