Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Justice Sotomayor

Well, it's official. President Obama has made his first Supreme Court pick. The winner is (drum roll....) Sonia Sotomayor, who will be the first Hispanic justice (and third female). As should be expected from a liberal president, she promises to be a liberal justice. Therefore, as a conservative, I guess I should register pro forma disapproval. However, she replaces a member of the liberal bloc on the court, so except for the fact that she's younger, nothing really will change, balance-wise. Moreover, she has been an appeals court judge for a good while (and was approved in that appointment by a Republican-controlled senate), and was originally appointed to the bench by Bush 41 (as part of a deal that basically gave the pick to NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan). She was top of her class at Princeton and Yale, after rising from poverty in the South Bronx. And of course, there's the reality of math--if Democrats hang together, they should be able to get Donald Duck confirmed if they want to, and he doesn't even wear pants! (Of course, Donald is both white and male, so he was never considered.)

There is already talk among some conservatives that she ought to be vigorously opposed, for a variety of reasons. One is that Obama made a big deal out of "empathy" as being key to his pick, which sticks in the craw of those of us who still feel like justice should be blind. Others cite her relatively high reversal rate on the appellate bench as evidence of a willingness to attempt to legislate from the bench, and further point to the fact that she was caught on tape once saying that "courts are where policy is made." Others are quick to jump on an article written in the liberal New Republic a while back in which Jeffrey Rosen hinted that she was not an intellectual heavyweight of the caliber of a Scalia or Roberts.

None of these are the real reason why Republicans want to oppose her, though. The real reason is that they are sick and tired of the double-standard that allowed Robert Bork to get crucified back in '87, Clarence Thomas' character to be assassinated under Bush 41, and most recently, for large numbers of Democrats to vote not to confirm the obviously-well-qualified Roberts and Alito (indeed, then-Senator Obama was anti-Alito to the point of considering a filibuster). They ask, and not unreasonably, "if these are the new rules, aren't they the same for both sides?" Why should the right always be bound by the Marquess of Queensbury Rules while the left fights like an episode of MMA on Spike TV late-night?

Well, I feel that pain. I really do. And there would be a certain satisfaction factor to dishing out what we've been taking. But there's game theory at work here. This fight is unwinnable, both in terms of the votes and also on the politics. Fighting Sotomayor with the "Alito Standard" would be spun by the media as anti-woman and anti-Hispanic. Better to keep the powder dry and point back to the bipartisan, smooth, cordial treatment given her when the timing is better, or a pick really does have a chance to change the balance of the court.

All that said, I am deeply conflicted over the divide between good, even "Christian" behavior towards ideological foes and good politics. My heart wants to extend far more courtesy to our current president than George W. Bush ever got. I want to take the high road, whether on judicial confirmations, culture issues, or whatever. I don't want to stoop to the level of playing dirty. But my gut says what someone (maybe Bear Bryant) once said about SEC football: "if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'." One need only look at the assaults on Carrie Prejean, Sarah Palin, Joe the Pumber, or even Justices Roberts and Alito (not to even mention George W. Bush), to realize that there's plenty of dirty pool going on. I'm not sure that it's in the best interest of the nation for the right to roll over and die rather than sully our hands.

Last night (Memorial Day) I had the opportunity to watch the great 1941 movie Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper. Alvin York was a devout Christian (a member of the Church of Christ) from Tennessee. He pleaded not to be drafted into WWI because he did not want to kill. He was turned down because his church had no written creed that forbade war. But when he found his men penned in by machine gun fire in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, he decided that the only way to save hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives, was for him to do that which he abhorred, and take lives himself. York was one of those Tennessee sharpshooters who could handle a rifle from the time he could walk. He picked off 20 or more men before 132 Germans surrendered. York won the Congressional Medal of Honor and is one of the USA's greatest heroes. Don't get me wrong--I'm not suggesting that politics is the equivalent of physical war, and I'm not advocating a slide to the lowest common denominator. I'm also not saying that the end justifies the means. But we have to ask ourselves, in many cases, what are the consequences of our actions, and also of our inaction. In the case of this nomination, there is minimal up-side potential to resistance, and serious down-side. But that may not always be the case.


Greg and Kim said...

I read a good article in time by Joe Scarborough where he defended the Republican party against talk of its impending demise. Citing Edmund Burke and Ronald Reagan, he summed up the tenets of Republicanism into one overarching concept: Respect reality. I liked that, and to the degree that they do that, I find myself sympathetic to Republican principles. Politics and government need to respect reality as a matter of survival.

Here’s where I am, though: Jesus did not respect reality. He completely defied it. The reality is, when people come to kill you, and, instead of defending yourself, you heal your injured enemy, they don’t change their minds. They kill you anyway. (Of course, the reality also is, when they kill you, you stay dead.) Unfortunately for our survival instincts and logical sensibilities, Jesus commanded us to have that same disrespect for reality. Because the reality is, when you turn the other cheek, you are going to get the snot beat out of you. That’s just reality. When you give to the one who asks, without expecting in return, you are going to get taken advantage of. When you don’t resist an evil person, they will hurt/kill you. It’s called reality.

I don’t think Jesus was joking around with the Sermon on the Mount. I think that’s why it takes faith to follow Christ; to do so is to defy reality. We see reality. It’s all around us. But instead of using the weapons of the world, we are supposed to use love. That makes no sense. But...you either believe it or you don’t.

I struggle with this in a big way. And I don’t have all the answers. My survival instinct is as strong as the next person’s, and if you mess with my kids, God help you. Like I said, I haven’t figured it all out. But I strive everyday to fully understand what it means to lose my life to save it, what it means to die to myself, what it means to take these words of Jesus seriously.

On a practical level, I do see it work sometimes. I don’t think Bonhoeffer’s impact came from the fact that he tried to assassinate Hitler; I think it came from the fact that he willingly returned to Germany and died for what he believed in. Malcolm X’s militancy didn’t change the world; it was the love of the SNCC kids, of the Jim Lawsons and Dr. Kings. But to the extent that I don’t see it working is the extent to which I strive to live by faith. Because I firmly believe in the end that God isn’t going to judge us on whether we successfully propagated a political philosophy that was marginally more aligned with the Kingdom than its opposing philosophy. He is going to judge us on how much we believe what He said...and how much we acted on it.


Greg and Kim said...

Time, the magazine. I should really edit before I publish.