Chief Injustice

When the founders designed the Federal government, they thought carefully about how to ensure that at least one branch would be protected from electoral pressure – the Judicial Branch.

The other branches of government have staggered turnovers: the House of Representatives every other year, the Senate every six years, and the President every four years. The idea was that the longer the term, the more resistant to public pressure. It is for this reason that the Senate prides itself on being the “greatest deliberative body in the world.”

But the federal judiciary serve lifetime terms because they are intended to be immune to political pressure. They need not consider how a decision or opinion from the bench will affect their electoral prospects. This allowed the Supreme Court, early in the history of nation (Marbury vs. Madison), to claim the role of deciding whether the actions of the other branches were legal under the terms of the highest law of the land – the US Constitution.

The founders understood that political actors would use the powers of office to secure their position. In other words, the founders understood that every act by a elected official would have political consequences. In the hoped-for outcome, good policy would lead the voters to re-elect the official. In the unfortunate case, exposure of misconduct would cause the voters to deny the official their office.

Unfortunately, that requires that the misconduct be revealed. The founders again provided diverse methods for that to occur. The first is the free press. The second is the balance of powers: each of the three branches has the opportunity to check misconduct in the other branches.

The Supreme Court is intended to be the branch most immune to pressure when it exercises that responsibility. Unfortunately, it has abdicated that role. Under the guidance of “Chief Justice” John Roberts, the justices selected by Republican presidents have decided that they wish to avoid “political involvement.”

This is absolutely childish. Every act of the federal government has political outcomes. That one party or the other claims a case is “political” is natural, but irrelevant. The job of the court is to decide whether the actions of officials in the other branches is legal under the Constitution. To abdicate that role is absurd, childish, and cause for impeachment. It is the reason that the Supreme Court exists.

This is not idle speculation. The Court, considering the national conspiracy to disenfranchise electors in 2010 (The GoP “Red Map” project), determined that it was “nonjusticiable.” In other words, the Court would not decide whether the plan violated the Constitution right to vote in free and fair elections.

Similarly, the conservative members of the Court have avoided intervention to enforce Congressional subpoenas that are essential to exposing criminality in the Executive Branch.

This injustice is a political act. The chief proponent of that policy, John Roberts, is woefully ill-suited to his role. Claiming that the Court should avoid political entanglements is absurd. When a question of legality or legitimacy is brought before the court, the only criterion that the Court can consider is the Law, with the Constitution as the ultimate standard for legality.

Future Challenge

During conversations at work this week, I was reminded of how fortunate we are in America. A Veitnamese engineer observed that he was astonished by the amount of emotional energy we build in our presidential campaigns, when in fact nothing changes when an new occupant sits in the Oval Office. In Vietnam, people would take their money and bury it out in a field, because they didn’t know whether they would be forced from their homes after an election. And those serving in high office might find themselves jailed or executed.

This sentiment was echoed by our Hungarian visitor, the majority owner who complained that US policy had transformed Syrian, Egypt and Libya from stable dictatorships into violent anarchies. Of course, that’s not what happened – we simply chose not to throw our weight behond the dictators when their people rose against them. And the anarchy that resulted is symptomatic of nations whose institutions have been weakened by purges. Without any experienced leadership, those assuming power have to build civil society from ground zero against the resistance of those that benefited from the cronyism used by dictators to spread influence from government into the economic sector. The economic elite knows that dictatorship is essential to its privilege, and works hard to justify its restoration.

Among American youth, the evidence of recidivism in liberated lands must be demoralizing. They fought and died to create the opportunity for change in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now the societies tear themselves apart in ethnic conflict and class warfare. Any such frustration would only strengthen the political anomie that I hear expressed by young engineers, hair-cutters and baristas.

What saddens me about this is that the coming generation, while facing enormous burdens, also has awesomely powerful tools available to it. My youngest son complains that modern educational standards far surpass those required of my generation, but I remember in high school having to drive down to UCLA to get source materials for my AP History reports. When he was struggling last year with a paper covering the prophetic writings of Verne, Asimov and Clarke, I shared my perspective, and he came back thirty minutes later reporting that he had been able to find supporting references through the search engines.

In social action, Facebook and other engines (some devoted solely to social action) allow organization across geographic and cultural boundaries. They have their defects – internet trolls have mastered the subtle sociology of fomenting hostility. But researchers at MIT and elsewhere are using network theory and content analysis to identify such actors. I expect that within the next three years we’ll see a blooming of collaborative social communities on the internet.

As that process evolved, particularly among business leaders used through years of social media to transparency in their relationships, we’ll eventually reach a tipping point in social control. The relationships established and maintained online will evolve so rapidly that they’ll be beyond the control of bricks-and-mortar tyrannies.

What is critical is that the youth of the world recognize that they are still working within systems dominated by relationships established through face-to-face interactions. They need to temper their expectations for progress until they have managed to infiltrate those systems. That may seem counter-revolutionary, but it’s simply the way of the world. While the opportunities of the future seem obvious to our youth, the world is not structured at this time to transmit power through those channels. They need to pull up their bootstraps and play the role of midwife to the future that awaits their children.

America Through the Papal Lens

We Americans might be expected, as members of the most powerful nation on Earth, to be used to thinking that every political issue ultimately will be a domestic issue. I expect, upon reading the analysis of the Pope’s message, to be confronted with arguments regarding the merit of his pronouncements regarding the death penalty, immigration, climate change, economic justice and the primacy of statesmanship over armed might. I myself will offer analysis on immigration in a future post.

But is that how we should interpret the lesson on political civics offered to us by Pope Francis in his oration before the Joint Meeting of Congress? For that is indeed what it was: a reminder that politics is an act of service to the people, and that the measure of political success is not the towering monuments of wealth, but the hope and opportunity served to the most desperate of our citizens. Did Francis attempt to resolve the delicate balance between, on one hand, the creation and maintenance of infrastructure that generates opportunity, and, on the other hand, the basic needs that sustain individual initiative? No, he did not, but long experience has shown that a resolution is impossible, and so could not have been his goal.

His goal was far simpler: to remind the United States how important it is as an example to the world. To this end, he raised to our attention four great personalities: Lincoln, MLK Jr, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. He did not dwell on their accomplishments, only offering the briefest analysis of their virtues before plunging into an elaboration of how those virtues relate to the challenges facing the world today.

Many will not see it that way. Many will see his pronouncements on immigration, for example, as meddling in domestic politics. But from his perspective, the problem is a global problem. The displaced refugee does not appear only as an illegal within our borders, but on every inhabited continent. If America cannot sustain the compassion to see them as human beings in need of support, then what nation can?

And so with his civics lesson: our tolerance of aggression in American politics is to authorize tyrannical pronouncements by despots all around the globe. That we tend to use economics to elaborate Clauswitz’s dictum (“War is the continuation of politics by other means”) cannot be expected to register on those without our economic sophistication. Tyrants will use the tools available to them when hostility is sparked by rhetoric, and often their tool of choice will be violence. Our political discourse should be civil, and thus set a better example for the rest of the world.

So I stand in awe of the presentation today. The negative was left implicit. Instead, Pope Francis offered us a paean to American excellence, and exhorted us to heed our better angels when crafting policy.

I do wish that Pope Francis would have extended a practical hand to the politicians that resist collaborative policy making. Early in his speech, he did offer that his goal was to reach not just those present, but all those they represent. The tenderness and humility of this man are a manifestation of divine authority that has changed many hearts over the course of human history. To have indicated some of the many Catholic initiatives intended to address our shared difficulties might have – as did Kennedy’s exhortation to reach the moon – provided an impetus to those that fear the problems are too large, and nothing can be done.

And I know that as an observer of reconciliation in Argentina, Pope Francis must have many profound personal stories to share regarding the political power of love, and the healing that it brings. While his personal example of charity and compassion is profound, those engaged in the cut and thrust of politics may see indulgence in such demonstrations. For those struggling with that resistance, personal testimony of political reconciliation might have been beneficial.