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.

 

 

Advertisements

Scalia’s Legacy

February 14, 2016

As my dear friend Vincent Bonventre has written, “All good Americans are saddened by the news that Justice Antonin Scalia has died.” But this is also a moment to consider his role on the Court.

For me, the principal fact is the disclaimer by Justices Thomas and Scalia that democracy has anything to do with the work of the Court. He was consistent. Stopping the counting of votes and overruling democracy in Bush v. Gore, repeatedly deciding that gerrymandering could not be determined by the courts, voting to limit access to the ballot, and overriding legislation designed to protect the equal right to vote where it had been most flagrantly denied. And of course Scalia joined the majority in the infamous Citizens United decision.

These are all part of the Court’s Republican tilt in recent years. This has not been a Court for all Americans, enforcing fair and neutral ground rules for everyone, but specifically a court with its foot on the scale making sure that the Republicans win, the Republicans control the Congress, and Republicans place an imprint on the law.

In the coming term, there are cases awaiting decision that will decide whether an independent, non-partisan commission can be charged with redistricting, what counts as gerrymandering and what is barred as retrogression in minority rights under the Voting Rights Act, among others. The Court in similar cases has been governed by a 5-4 conservative majority. In the present term, it is unlikely to be able to decide many of them, leaving lower court decisions intact, but not setting precedent for future cases. In effect, whatever the lower court decisions, the questions will remain open for the Supreme Court to decide in the future when it is back to full strength or otherwise has a majority that can reach a decision.

There are other areas of law to consider. Justice Scalia has been a consistent member of a pro-business majority that has emasculated consumer protections in state law as I have described in my new book. He also wrote the decision that emboldened gun-rights radicals to intimidate federal officials, fought against rights for gays and lesbians, and helped block even the mildest of efforts to integrate public schools.

Political scientists tell us that those are all areas which have a great deal to do with the stability of democratic regimes, a subject on which I will write most in a future post.

Scalia’s sincere emphasis on textualism sometimes led him to support “liberal” outcomes as George Kannar long since demonstrated. But most of his decisions tracked conservative views far more than textualism or originalism would have supported.

So Scalia’s absence will make a big difference on the Court. The long run implications, of course, are up to the President and the Senate. No need to repeat all the scenarios here. But whether the Court can be turned before doing more damage matters a great deal to the future of the republic. Stay tuned and, of course, plan on voting for president and senators.


%d bloggers like this: