Justice Stevens, Senator Obama, and the Principle of One Justice, One Vote
Tying Together Wednesday Morning's Opinions and Wednesday Evening's Debate
By Dan McLaughlin Posted in 2008 | Democratic Debate | Justice Scalia | Justice Stevens | Obamafiles | Rube-gate — Comments (4) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
If you want to understand precisely why Barack Obama's sneering condescension towards the beliefs and culture of ordinary voters - and willingness to treat them as irrational prejudices - is a concern in presidential politics, you really need look no further than what happens when such attitudes are brought to the Supreme Court, whose Justices Senator Obama wants to pick. Check out the conclusion of Justice Scalia's brief but masterful concurring opinion yesterday Baze v. Rees, taking Justice Stevens to task for his separate opinion urging that the death penalty be held unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment (a position the Court had taken once before, only to be reversed by Justices then including Stevens himself), despite the many state and federal legislatures that have repeatedly endorsed it, the many juries that have imposed it, the studies supporting its effects, and the fact that the Constitution itself makes explicit references to the death penalty:
As Justice Stevens explains, "'objective evidence, though of great importance, [does] not wholly determine the controversy, for the Constitution contemplates that in the end our own judgment will be brought to bear on the question of the acceptability of the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment.'" .... "I have relied on my own experience in reaching the conclusion that the imposition of the death penalty" is unconstitutional.
Purer expression cannot be found of the principle of rule by judicial fiat. In the face of Justice Stevens' experience, the experience of all others is, it appears, of little consequence. The experience of the state legislatures and the Congress - who retain the death penalty as a form of punishment - is dismissed as "the product of habit and inattention rather than an acceptable deliberative process." Ante, at 8. The experience of social scientists whose studies indicate that the death penalty deters crime is relegated to a footnote. Ante, at 10, n. 13. The experience of fellow citizens who support the death penalty is described, with only the most thinly veiled condemnation, as stemming from a "thirst for vengeance." Ante, at 11. It is Justice Stevens' experience that reigns over all.
(Bold added; italics in original). Read the whole thing; as I said, it's pretty short, as Justice Thomas' separate concurrence (there were seven separate opinions) does the heavy historical lifting.
Now, take note here; it's not Justice Scalia in this debate who wants to take the issue of the death penalty away from the people of Kentucky and make it a matter to be determined by presidential appointees; it's Justice Stevens. I think a lot of Americans wish that we had presidential politics free of hot-button cultural issues, but it's not conservatives who are the main obstacle to doing that. Yet if you listened to Senator Obama last night, he would still have you believe that there's something wrong with voters who care about the rights and democratic privileges that people like Senator Obama want to bring under federal control:
[P]eople are going through very difficult times right now. And we are seeing it all across the country. And that was true even before the current economic hardships ...And so the point I was making was that when people feel like Washington's not listening to them, when they're promised year after year, decade after decade, that their economic situation is going to change and it doesn't, then, politically, they end up focusing on those things that are constant like religion.
They end up feeling this is a place where I can find some refuge. This is something I can count on. They end up being much more concerned about votes around things like guns, where traditions have been passed on from generation to generation. And those are incredibly important to them. And, yes, what is also true is that wedge issues, hot-button issues, end up taking prominence in our politics.
And part of the problem is that when those issues are exploited, we never get to solve the issues that people really have to get some relief on, whether it's health care or education or jobs.
In other words, you're only supposed to vote about what Obama says you should vote about - even when Washington is busy meddling in other areas of life. On the "wedge issues," people who agree with Obama should just be given a free hand. (It's also rather rich for Obama to suggest that guns should not be a political issue given his own record of voting to restrict gun ownership - I guess he cast those votes because he was too bitter to stick to economic issues, eh?).
Cases like Baze vividly illustrate that, for the foreseeable future, the Presidential power to appoint federal judges will have an outsized impact on the resolution of "hot-button" or "wedge" issues. I understand full well why, given the unpopularity of "rule by judicial fiat" for liberal ends, Senator Obama doesn't want voters to consider those aspects of the president's powers in voting for who the president should be. But I very much doubt that most voters are such ignorant rubes that they don't realize that a President Obama would be quite happy to use his powers to advance his own values, not theirs.