Friday, July 01, 2005

Court jesters on the loose

There have been questions about the health of a couple of its members, so the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) must be smoking the marijuana they only recently said the federal government had a right to outlaw. I can’t imagine any other way that nine seemingly extraordinarily intelligent jurists could come to the decisions they’ve reached this past term. There must be some cloud about their collective heads.

First, let us consider the place of religion in the public eye. Two separate cases arrived on their doorstep this summer -- one from Texas, one from Kentucky -- challenging the placement of copies of the Ten Commandments on and in state property. Yippee-ki-yay! the image in Texas can stay where it is, outside the State Capitol building. But gol durn it, the Kentuckians have to get shut of the Commandments in their courthouses. Now, the one in Texas stands alone, out there with no context other than that it’s an aged, big, stone-carved message from... um, you know.... The bunches of copies throughout Kentucky are surrounded by other documents concerning the history of law, other examples of judicial thought. Wow! I once believed that context was everything, and now the SCOTUS is telling us all I was wrong. I’m not quite sure how I’m wrong, though. I’m afraid that, even after reading the majority paper and the dissent, I still have no clue what these nine were thinking, here. Something in there mentioned time spent on display, as though something that had been standing in public for a generation was deemed good, and the newer stuff was the root of all evil, but that couldn’t be their argument, could it? I even had the temerity to ask a couple of law geeks I know, and they, too, were left confused. My friends seemed to think that the members of the SCOTUS had spent too much time going in circles on the issue of public expressions of faith, and wanted everybody else to be as dizzy as they were.

But religion isn’t the only issue brought before The Supreme Court. A group of homeowners in Connecticut brought pleas to save them from eviction by the city. The city of New London decided to apply eminent domain, to force middle-class families to sell their not-decrepit houses, in order to improve the city’s tax base a bit. Eminent domain, the power a government has to confiscate private property for the public need, is one of those powers listed in the US Constitution, it’s true. But, in reviewing the centuries-old document, I noticed that it didn’t actually say that seizure of property could be done on the cheap in order to sell the land to a big-time developer of hotels, condominiums, and private office complexes. I believe, unless they’ve rewritten the Constitution since my copy was printed in 1989, the operative phrase was “public use”, and that the original property owner must be paid “just compensation”. In many cases, the houses were bought by the city for under eighty thousand dollars, whereas, in neighboring communities, a comparable house sells for two to three hundred grand. “Just compensation” or “just a pittance”? And, in the case of several residents -- folks just like our neighbors -- they had lived in their homes for generations and did not want to leave behind the memories. The SCOTUS told them to pack up and get gone. If the public can benefit, nothing you own is yours.

So, while more than a year ago, the SCOTUS informed Texas that the government could not peek into a person’s bedroom to confirm that he was breaking a state law (the sodomy law), they’ve just told 42 states that they can go ahead and level the house said bedroom is in, with or without his consent (8 states have limits on eminent domain powers). As long as they pay the occupant (I’d say homeowner, but apparently that’s a fiction) something for it, go ahead and send in the bulldozers.

Meanwhile, the SCOTUS has said that it’s still unlawful to deny illegal immigrants access to the public, tax-funded schools, it’s still unlawful for security forces to use racial profiling for an investigation into a crime or a possible terrorist plot, it’s unlawful for a state to execute a murderer if he doesn’t meet an arbitrarily set age requirement -- no matter how egregious his crime -- and it’s unlawful for medical caregivers to prescribe heroin or other strong opiates in order to ease the pain of dying patients who have zero likelihood of abuse or addiction.

When you get right down to it, these decisions indicate that the SCOTUS believes Government knows what’s best for you. Just like it knows better than your doctor, whether you should smoke a little weed to ease your glaucoma or the nausea you’ve suffered from your cancer treatments. SCOTUS believes it knows best, even when its head is filled with nothing but smoke.

Recommended additional resources: Eminent Domain Resource Center, links to Federal and State Constitutions

Update: addthis from Scrappleface to the list.

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