Posts Tagged ‘Antonin Scalia’

Scalia Seems Confused About Natural Law

Friday, January 8th, 2010


Noted Catholic and right winger Scalia was recently asked – in his rephrasing of the question:

Why shouldn’t we follow the unamininty of the world [regarding] assisted suicide…homosexual sodomy…abortion…[&tc]?

His response was rather odd. He argues that judges don’t have any special expertise to decide these issues, therefore they should be decided by the people. (This part isn’t odd. It makes sense to me, though with some caveats.) But then he goes on to incorporate this with his belief in natural law:

I believe in natural law, but I believe that in democratic political instituions,  it’s up to the people to decide what they think natural law demands…Because we all disagree on natural law. Why say whatever a bunch of judges think is the answer? That makes no sense in a democracy. There are no clear judicial answers to these questions. And since there aren’t it seems to be it’s the kind of a thing that in a democracy we debate with one another and we ask the people what do you think natural law requires.

Here’s where he’s lost me. Because the primary precepts of natural law should be evident to every rational human being* – regardless of religion. Hell, it should be evident to animals – so evident that they act in accordance with it naturally. Thus we all shouldn’t “disagree on natural law.” We should tend to agree – and we should actually agree if we act according to our natures. Thus, the opinions of other people in the world actually does provide evidence of natural law – though it could be attempted to be explained away as some mass perversion.

I don’t disagree with the position Scalia is defending – that these contentious social issues should when possible be decided by the more democratic political institutions rather than the judiciary (although the judiciary has tended to follow public opinions) – but I find his argument itself puzzling. I think these issues should be decided by the more social institutions because I believe they are social decisions primarily. Scalia seems to be arguing that these are governed by natural law – which, given the role we have given judges to extrapolate from current law and apply it to specific situations, is exactly what they would need to be doing with natural law. “Joe Sixpack” – to use that derogatory phrase Scalia and Palin like so much – may know natural law as he knows the rules of the road. But we entrust judges with applying the rules of the road with rationality tempered by wisdom. They don’t always – but that’s their job. Their experience taking a set of rules that are knowable and applying them to specific situations is exactly the type of experience that “Joe Sixpack” doesn’t have – and would make judges more expect.

But – and here I speculate – it doesn’t seem Scalia believes in natural law as the term was created by Thomas Aquinas. (N.B. I haven’t kept up-to-date on modern day natural law theory, so if any informed readers could inform me if modern day Thomists have entirely eviscerated Aquinas’s definition with some work-around, let me know.) Instead he believes that issues like “assisted suicide…homosexual sodomy…abortion” &tc are inherently political. Thus, they should be decided by the political institutions rather than judicial ones. This undermines the case made by Robert P. George (along with many members of the Catholic Church hierarchy) regarding why the church must take political stands on issues involving natural law (where it happens to agree with the Republican Party.)

* As Aquinas wrote in the Summa Theologica: “[W]e must say that the natural law, as to general principles, is the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowledge.”

Replacing Souter

Monday, May 4th, 2009

There’s a few different schools of thought on how Obama should go about replacing Justice David Souter. Dahlia Lithwick – a few months ago – called on Obama to make his next appointment “a hero, a bomb-throwing, passionate, visionary, liberal Scalia.” Others are just calling for Obama to place someone liberal enough to counter-balance the extreme conservatives appointed by Bush. Conservatives and right-wingers are calling on Obama to appoint someone “moderate” – though given the political circumstances, it is almost guaranteed that they will not accept any appointment, no matter how “moderate.” All of this is based on a rather direct analysis of the Supreme Court – presuming that decisions are and will be made based on political viewpoints. 

I’m not trying to say that we should accept Justice Roberts’s oft-cited analysis of the judge as umpire – just calling the law as he sees it. I thought Obama made an excellent point back in July 2007 when he critiqued this view:

 When Roberts came up and everybody was saying, “You know, he’s very smart and he’s seems a very decent man and he loves his wife. You know, he’s good to his dog. He’s so well qualified.”

I said, well look, that’s absolutely true and … in the overwhelming number of Supreme Court decisions, that’s enough. Good intellect, you read the statute, you look at the case law and most of the time, the law’s pretty clear. Ninety-five percent of the time. Justice Ginsberg, Justice Thomas, Justice Scalia they’re all gonna agree on the outcome.

But it’s those five percent of the cases that really count. And in those five percent of the cases, what you’ve got to look at is—what is in the justice’s heart. What’s their broader vision of what America should be. Justice Roberts said he saw himself just as an umpire but the issues that come before the Court are not sport, they’re life and death. And we need somebody who’s got the heart—the empathy—to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old—and that’s the criteria by which I’ll be selecting my judges. Alright?

Ed Whelan over at the Corner is trying to make a big deal out of what he’s calling Obama’s lie – which is that judicial philosophy is unimportant. He cites the above quote as proof Obama thinks judicial philosophy is unimportant – but he doesn’t seem to have read it closely, as you can clearly see Obama say:

[I]t’s those five percent of the cases that really count.

The person Whelan really should be attacking – if he believes judicial philosophy is unimportant – is Justice Roberts who sought to minimize the role of politics in his decisions (at least in his pre- and post-appointment rhetoric.)

But what I’m interested most in is a justice who can move the other members of the Court – either through personality or their compelling understanding of the law. One historical type that has moved the Court would be a politician – such as Sandra Day O’Connor or Earl Warren – whose personality drew other justices to accept some of their decisions, and gradually shaped the Court over time. This is why I think it’s a bad idea to appoint a liberal version of Justice Scalia – whose personality actually hurt his politics. Jennifer Granholm is a good possibility on this front. As would Hillary Clinton or Al Gore if they were only younger.

In the alternative, Obama could appoint an ideologically interesting thinker – who is liberal, but nevertheless, thinks outside of the box. The two people that come to mind on this score are Cass Sunstein and Lawrence Lessig. Lessig is probably too young yet – and Sunstein has not only encountered surprising resistance to his appointment to an obscure position, but he probably would like an opportunity to take a crack at enhancing that position and testing his theories on libertarian paternalism. 

Finally, I like Harold Koh for the post – even though it is unlikely he fits into any of the above two categories. He’s national security thinker with a great resume. I don’t know his record on most issues – but I’ve heard him speak on national security law – my main interest – and he has strong, nuanced positions, viewing our national security apparatus as a whole system rather than as a series of isolated issues. He would be a strong voice in reigning in an executive branch that has barely pulled back in terms of it’s assertions of power in the national security arena.

The Significance of Jack Bauer

Monday, March 16th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Dahlia Lithwick in Newsweek:

The most influential legal thinker in the development of modern American interrogation policy is not a behavioral psychologist, international lawyer or counterinsurgency expert…the prime mover of American interrogation doctrine is none other than the star of Fox television’s “24,” Jack Bauer.

Though Lithwick’s statement may sound like an exaggeration, the most common defense of America’s torture policy has been to invoke the character of Jack Bauer on 24. John Yoo, Diane Beaver, Michael Chertoff, Tom Tancredo, and most famously Antonin Scalia have all invoked the TV show 24 in describing and defending national security law under George W. Bush. U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, saw the show’s influence as so pernicious that he he flew to visit the show’s producers to ask them to stop representing torture in such a positive light as it was undermining national security:

[Brigadier General] Finnegan told the producers that “24,” by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors—cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by “24,” which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24”?’ ” He continued, “The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”

It sounds as if the gullible students in Finnegan’s class have taken their lead from Justice Scalia who, in defending the extraordinary measures of the Bush administration, asked: 

Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles…He saved hundreds of thousands of lives…Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?

Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, whose legal memoranda aided the justification torture, claimed that Jack Bauer “gave people lots of ideas” about how to interrogate prisoners.

One thing that most of these defenders of torture do not mention – and that many opponents of torture fail to bring up – is that torture doesn’t seem to work. This is in many respects a secondary question – as the morality of torture and the “by any means necessary” approach of Jack Bauer as well as the Bush administration is debated. But Matthew Alexander, a pseodonym for a military interrogator who led the team that found Abu al-Zarqawi in Iraq, has been a vocal defender of the view that torture is an inefficient and counterproductive interrogation tool. The FBI has long maintained that their methods are proven and get reliable information from subjects – as opposed to the new torture techniques that do not. Neither the Nazis nor the Communists interrogated their high-value detainees – not because of their respect for human rights, but because they saw what was most effective. The greatest Nazi interrogator was a Hanns-Joachim Schraff who never even raised his voice, let alone tortured his subjects. He was one of the few top Nazis not tried for war crimes. Matthew Alexander – the man who got the intelligence that led to Zarqawi’s death – was one of the few adherents to Schraff’s view of interrogation in Iraq. His interrogation tools, rather than fear, violence, torture, religious persecution, and intimidation were “respect, rapport, hope, cunning, and deception.” 

Ann Applebaum points to the obvious question:

Given the overwhelmingly negative evidence, the really interesting question is not whether torture works but why so many people in our society want to believe that it works.

It may be unfair to blame 24 for this belief in the efficacy of torture. There is something deeper at work here than the propaganda of a television show. But 24 puts forth a persuasive cultural argument in which the extreme circumstances that occur every hour on the show justify extreme actions (such as threatening to harm an infant, mock executions of children; regular torture) are then used to justify American policies.

The Last Thing We Need Is A Liberal Scalia

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Dahlia Lithwick, who I rarely fail to mention, is one of my favorite writers, had a piece a few days ago on what she wants. In a Supreme Court justice that is. And I lightly paraphrase:

Wonky liberal lawyer seeking a hero, a bomb-throwing, passionate, visionary, liberal Scalia for a seat on the Supreme Court!

One of the main facts revealed in all those recent scholarship of the Rehnquist (O’Connor) court, though, was that Scalia’s brash personality and insulting style actually pushed the moderates to the left – or drove them to be less susceptible to being wooed to Scalia’s side in an argument. Though the Court has indisputably moved far to the right since Scalia entered it, seven of the past nine Supreme Court justices have been appointed by Republican presidents. The two appointed by Clinton were moderates chosen to be confirmed by a Republican Congress. Yet, the Court has only moved slowly towards conservative positions. There are many explanations of this, but for anyone who considers the social dynamics of the Court to be significant – and from her article Dahlia seems to be one who does – then Scalia’s antagonistic approach to O’Connor’s sloppy reasoning and Kennedy’s pomposity certainly must be one factor. A brash, bomb-throwing liberal then is exactly what the Court doesn’t need. 

What I think it does need is a libertarian-minded liberal who can forge an alliance with Scalia on certain issues – and perhaps Thomas as well. Both Alito and Roberts seem to be enamored of executive power – and perhaps that was why it was they who were chosen. I consider them lost causes. But Scalia and Thomas are conservatives of an older school – one which a contemporary liberal – such as Lawrence Lessig or even Cass Sunstein – has much in common with.

I think Dahlia would be happy with that though – a Lessig, a Sunstein, and a Lawrence Tribe. Perhaps a Harold Koh and an Elena Kagan. Instead of a bomb-thrower, I think Dahlia just wants a liberal with a vision instead of an incrementalist. On that, I agree.

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