The Proud Duck
Thursday, March 16, 2006
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently gave a speech in South Africa, defending her innovation of looking to foreign law in interpreting questions arising under the U.S. Constitution.
Leaving aside the soundness of her argument (I think it stinks; that's a long argument for another day), she displayed a pettiness towards those who disagree that is unworthy of a judge, let alone a member of the Supreme Court. She stated that she'd been alerted to a post on a radical website where someone had suggested -- possibly even seriously -- that she should be done away with in order to save American democracy. She also stated that Justice Roger Taney, in his infamous Dred Scott decision (which created out of nothing a constitutional principle that the government had no right to restrict the spread of slavery) had criticized the use of foreign precedent.
That's called "guilt by association." It's shoddy logic and it displays deep bad faith and contempt for civil debate. But let's play along, shall we?
Justice Ginsburg is a constitutional nonoriginalist -- that is, she believes that in interpreting the Constitution, she believes she is not bound by what the Constitution's actual text actually meant to the people who wrote it, but rather than she may substitute her ideology for the clear original meaning of the text.
I reject this, for a fairly simple reason: I believe, with the Declaration of Independence, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. It follows that a provision of the Constitution derives its authority from the fact that it represents an expression of the consent of the people who selected the representatives who drafted it, to be governed according to that provision. It continues to have its authority by virtue of the fact that we continue to consent to be governed by it, rather than exercising our democratic right to change or abolish it.
But if a judge substitutes her judgment for the plain text that was actually consented to, the chain of consent is broken: There has been no popular consent to be governed by the new "interpretation" (in practice, often strained sophistry that cannot honestly be said to be one of multiple reasonable interpretations of what the text actually means.)
That would be the short version of my counterargument. It's the one I would make, because I believe one's opponents deserve a good-faith, reasoned rebuttal. If I were Justice Ginsburg, on the other hand, I might just point out that she's a nonoriginalist, and Justice Taney was a nonoriginalist (the Dred Scott decision being based on Justice Taney's racist philosophy rather than on any specific provision of the Constitution's text), and therefore she's just as shabby as Taney. But that wouldn't be fair.
As far as the nutcase website that called for Justice Ginsburg to get the Pelican Brief treatment, I could just as easily point to the posters on the popular left-wing website dailykos.com, who presumably sympathize with Justice Ginsburg's nonoriginalist philosophy as long as it advances their politics, and thus tar her by association with people who've also advocated political violence.
In my first law firm, there was a liberal paralegal who took part in protest marches organized by International ANSWER, whose organizers include old-school Stalinists. That's one difference between (many) liberals and me: They have no problem associating themselves with making alliances of convenience with supporters of totalitarianism, while I (and most of the people who share my political thinking) wouldn't even consider joining in, say, an anti-tax protest if it were organized by neo-Nazis or the like.
And that leads this meandering rant to the upcoming movie "V for Vendetta," a comic-book action movie set in a dystopian near-future fascist London. It's clear that the filmmakers (the Wachowski brothers) are suggesting that the society portrayed is a possible outcome of present American politics -- the premise is that the government has used the threat of terrorism, as "America's war" grows worse and worse, to suspend all liberties and set up a "faith-based" dictatorship.
Sheesh. At least when Joe McCarthy went around darkly suggesting that his political opponents were in league with totalitarians, there were real live Stalinists mucking about. These guys seriously think that their opponents want to set up a dictatorship -- based, I suppose, on hyperventilations about liberty dying because the FBI can ask a library if Ahmed Death-to-America Shahid checked out a book on How To Make A Bomb With Six Household Chemicals.
Fine, it's a movie -- but lots of people honestly think (if "think" can fairly describe the random electrical activity caroming around their skulls) that there's something to it.