Monday, July 13, 2009

Grilling a New Justice

I'm listening to Judge Sonia Sotomayor as she addresses the Senate Judicial Committee. I didn't hear every word of every Senator's speech leading up to her speech, but I did hear much of the speechifying. I heard more than a few references to activist judges and "making law from the bench." Ever the cynic, I could not help but think of the times the Supreme Court has chosen to rule on situations that really did not require their involvement as appliers of the Constitution -- how ballots should be counted in the state of Florida, whether a feeding tube should be reinserted or not. In each of those cases, I think the Supreme Court stepped outside of its Constitutional role to cast, if you will, a deciding vote in a matter that should never have involved them. You may know I've been reviewing the Supreme Court decisions of the past year. I'm not an attorney or a Constitutional scholar, but, to my ignorant mind, there were several times they made law rather than interpreting the Constitution.
Let's be honest here. The people talking about activist judges and making law are conservatives. Many of these same people had no problem asking the court to be activist in the Schaivo case or to make law in the 2000 election in Florida case. These are people who would love for the Supreme Court to make law limiting a woman's right to privacy in a way the Constitution never considered. To be frank, they have no problem with activist judges making law from the bench if the laws and action support their goals. These are supporters of the laws made this year by the Supreme Court because the laws benefit their largest campaign contributors. I'm really not much different. I want the Justices to interpret the Constitution the way I do and to make the decisions with which I agree. The difference, of course, is that I am not a US Senator elected to represent all the people in my state.
Most of the cases the Supreme Court hears have to do with fairly precise points of law. They are not exciting cases on abortion, voters' rights and such, they are plodding pedantic decisions on who can be heard in court, who has status under the law, etc. Actually, many of the decisions send things back to lower courts, telling those courts who must be included in the case or what points of law are applicable.
From my view, I want Supreme Court justices who are fair and impartial in their support of Constitutional principles. I sort of want the justices to apply a judicial version of the Episcopal three-legged stool of Biblical authority, tradition and reason. I want justices who apply the Constitution, understand the role of tradition and apply the reason to know the difference.
So now the speeches are over for the day. Judge Sotomayor's comments were so brief I might have missed them entirely while moving laundry from the washer to the dryer or using the toilet. She gave a very limited overview of her phenomenal resume, spending almost half the time of her speech recognizing her mother. She was humble and straightforward. After listening for hours to Senators polishing their personal egos and pushing their personal preferences, it was refreshing to hear the Judge give a simple and succinct statement of her history.
Tomorrow, we'll hear questions and answers. Certain Senators will push their personal agendas, perhaps even selectively quoting phrases of the constitution like Biblical literalists picking and choosing the words to put in Jesus' mouth. Tomorrow will start the parry and thrust of liberals and conservatives, some taking words out of context to make their points, others dancing in the limelight almost oblivious to their real roles.
It hasn't always been this way. For many years, Supreme Court nominees sat out in the hall until they were called in to answer specific questions. In most situations, they were not called in until they were confirmed. For many years, there was no immediacy of media. Reports of Congressional actions took weeks and months to spread throughout the country. For many years, the media and their cameras were kept outside the chambers and fed limited details until decisions were made. It is good that the workings of Congress are more accessible to U.S. citizens, but watching the pontifications of those elected to look out for us can rather turn one's stomach, can't they?

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