Supreme Court Justices and the Biblical Injunction on Gleanings

October 3, 2018

During the Jewish High Holy Days, we read from the biblical book of Leviticus where God enjoins the ancient Hebrews to leave the gleanings of their fields for the poor. I began to think about the conservative members of the current Supreme Court.

Though it’s 5000 years later, stick with me. Conservative nominees, including Judge Kavanaugh, have been telling us that decisions begin and end with the words of the law, a claim we call textualism. How can a textualist obey the ancient biblical injunction about gleanings?

Gleanings are what’s left in the fields after the harvest. Are textualists absolving us from caring for the poor, and, if not, how do they suggest we accomplish it?

Most of us don’t have gleanings – we’re not farmers. Are only farmers responsible to the poor, allowing the rest of us to take comfort from their work. That would be a “strict” textual solution but it’s not very satisfying since the Bible repeatedly stresses our obligation to the poor. Then how should we do it?

Led by Scalia, textualists often point to specific examples of how it was done when the authoritative texts were laid down. Of course, that means ancient solutions become less and less relevant. Scarcer and scarcer gleanings are left for more and more of the poor and they are harder and harder for the destitute to reach. So, the textualist philosophy gradually cancels the maxim itself. The textualists’ approach means the poor can go hungry as gleanings decline in the modern world.

An obvious solution is to identify the objectives of the biblical passage about gleanings and figure out how it might most appropriately be done. Scalia fought that idea. He railed against the possibility that the principles or values that underlie legal injunctions might be interpreted by judges. Liberals might try to figure out how to care for the poor instead of declaring the injunction unworkable. In other cases, liberals might try to assure accurate trial results, not merely obedience to traditional formalities. The defendant lost but had a chance so it’s over.

The late Justice Blackmun once cringed when a father beat his son so badly that the boy’s brain was destroyed and he became almost literally a vegetable. “Poor Joshua” he wrote and was lambasted for letting his sympathy affect his judgment. You may remember that Justice Sotomayor was subjected to the same attack. Sympathy, in the textualists’ view, negates legality. Since when, however, should one be ashamed of sympathy for the unfortunate? Since when is justice defined by not caring about the impact of the rules we create on the people who have to live with them?

Textualism camouflages abuses written into the legal system by justices without principles, as if “the law,” and not the judges, were doing all the damage. It’s time to disqualify judges for lack of empathy. Does the law have no gleanings to offer? No principles of caring and just behavior with which to help fill in the gaps and the changes in legal meanings that take place over time? I have never believed that the written law is responsible for the harm done by judges who mangle it with closed hearts and eyes blind to reality.

Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s latest nominee, continues the charade of denying that their cramped sense of justice is crucial to the decisions they make. Regardless of what the FBI finds about what happened to Dr. Ford, Kavanaugh has not justified our confidence by evasively blaming everything on his reading of past decisions.

 This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 25, 2018.

 

 

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Supreme Court Vacancies and the Sheriff of Nottingham

February 23, 2016

Justice Scalia’s death creates a vacancy on the Supreme Court. The next president may have more to fill. Deciding cases as if it were the Sheriff of Nottingham, The Roberts Court is having a major impact on the economy. How those vacancies are filled will make a big difference to all of us.

Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham come down to us from a medieval fairy tale and retellings in print and on film. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues explain the role of Sheriff of Nottingham type figures in our contemporary world. As fewer people have real power, those who run the government must shovel favors to them. Given how wealthy they already are, they won’t appreciate any but very large rewards. But what government does for the public leaves less for these powerful patrons. So rulers employ modern Sheriffs of Nottingham. It’s what Bueno de Mesquita’s group calls the dictator’s game: by starving the public, dictators have more for powerful supporters – and the more they demand.

Kevin Phillips detailed the enormous benefits that corporations seek and government directs toward corporations and their leaders. Spending on politics has huge returns, driving the fruits of government to the favored few, and dismantling government wherever business prefers to operate in the dark.

Many of us have been fighting against special favors for corporations that exploit workers, the environment and the general public. But it gets worse. As the story of Robin Hood implies, holders of great wealth and power fear the people will take their ill-gotten gains from them. To prevent it  they block opponents from voting, minimize their votes by gerrymandering, and pour large funds into preserving their power while starving the population of public services.

The Supreme Court has been helping. Despite enormous gains by the wealthiest in America, and the declining share of the general public, this Court consistently moves economic benefits from the public to business, from the victims to the predators. The Court reversed the meaning of a 1925 arbitration statute to derail a plethora of state consumer protections and made it almost impossible to sue. Instead, the Court allows corporate defendants to choose who will decide the dispute, and at what cost. The Court undercut both state and federal standards of liability for injury to consumers, securities fraud and the damages available if plaintiffs win. And the Court is waging a battle to strip the unions of power to protect workers.

At the same time, the Court unleashed the full power of corporate treasuries on politics. Those corporate treasuries had barred from politics since early in the twentieth century. And the Court allowed states to make it harder to register to vote by increasing the cost and time to register – making it harder for working class, poor or physically challenged Americans to vote. The Court allows gerrymandering to reshape American politics, and has supported other efforts to entrench political incumbents. The Court topped all that by removing the requirement that covered states pre-clear voting changes, the one weapon of the Voting Rights Act that had worked.

Historians and political scientists tell us that pattern of disparities often leads to the breakdown of democracy, the loss of self-government. Sometimes it leads to violence, like the Black Shirts, Brown Shirts, Death Squads, and the security services of people like Putin. Sometmes the plutocrats simply invite a dictator to take control. Great disparities are dangerous. Instead of moderating these outrages in the name of American tradition, the Court has been making the problems worse, increasing disparities and letting them take over American politics. This Court is a danger to American self-government.

That’s where the 2016 elections matter. Whatever policies candidates claim to support, their judicial picks will have a big impact on what really happens to ordinary Americans and the future of self-government in America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 23, 2016. An expanded essay can be found here.

 

 


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