Tuesday, March 14, 2006
I Normally Don't Like O'Connor, but the Wingnuts Ought to Start Worring When She's Starting to Sound Like Me.
Monday March 13, 2006
Linking the words "America" and "dictatorship" is a daily staple of leftwing blogs, which thrive on the idea that Bush administration policies since 9/11 are taking the country ever closer to totalitarian rule. Liberal fears that democracy is endangered by Republicans in Congress are so widespread, so endemic to the jittery political climate in the US, that they hardly bear repeating. It'll surprise no one to learn that another voice was added to the chorus last Thursday, warning that recent attacks on the American judiciary were putting the democratic fabric in jeopardy and were the first steps down the treacherous path to dictatorship.
What is surprising - more than that, electrifying - is that the voice belonged to Sandra Day O'Connor, who retired a few weeks ago from the supreme court. O'Connor is a Republican and a Reagan nominee. Regarded as the "swing vote" on the court, she swung the presidential election to George Bush in 2000.
Equally surprising is that O'Connor's speech to an audience of lawyers at Georgetown University was attended by just one reporter, the diligent legal correspondent for National Public Radio, Nina Totenberg. No transcript or recording of the speech has been made available, so we have only Totenberg's notes to go on. But - assuming they are accurate - the notes are political dynamite.
O'Connor's voice was "dripping with sarcasm", according to Totenberg, as she "took aim at former House GOP [Republican] leader Tom DeLay. She didn't name him, but she quoted his attacks on the courts at a meeting of the conservative Christian group Justice Sunday last year when DeLay took out after the courts for rulings on abortions, prayer and the Terri Schiavo case.
"It gets worse, she said, noting that death threats against judges are increasing. It doesn't help, she said, when a high-profile senator suggests there may be a connection between violence against judges and decisions that the senator disagrees with."
Then she spoke the D-word. "I, said O'Connor, am against judicial reforms driven by nakedly partisan reasoning. Pointing to the experiences of developing countries and former communist countries where interference with an independent judiciary has allowed dictatorship to flourish, O'Connor said we must be ever-vigilant against those who would strong-arm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies. It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, she said, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings."
Delivered by someone who was, until recently, one of the nine guardians of the US constitution, these are spine-chilling opinions, and you might have thought they'd have been all over the papers the next day. Not so. I happened to catch Totenberg's NPR report last Friday, and have been following up references to it. A cable TV talkshow and a handful of blogs have mentioned Totenberg's piece: otherwise there's been a disquieting silence, as if the former justice had laid an unsavoury egg and had best be politely ignored.
Why did O'Connor choose such a closed forum to air her thoughts? Why was Totenberg the only reporter present? The possibility that America is sliding toward dictatorship or an unprecedented form of corporate oligarchy ought to be a matter of world concern. And if O'Connor believes what she is reported to have said, surely she owes it to the world to make public the prepared text of her remarks, which so far have the dubious character of the scores of unverifiable leaks that have passed for news in the compulsively secretive world of the Bush administration. It's unsurprising that, say, Colin Powell chooses to leak rather than speak out, but when a supreme court justice prefers to whisper her fears to a coterie audience, it's hard to avoid the inference that the whisper itself speaks volumes about the imperilled democracy it purports to describe.
Death threats to judges figured importantly in O'Connor's speech, with good reason. Last year, an Illinois federal judge found her husband and mother murdered, and a Georgia state judge was shot dead in his courtroom. Within days, Senator John Cornyn of Texas mused: "I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters, on some occasions, where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in violence." DeLay, speaking of the judges who had ruled that Schiavo be allowed to die, said: "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behaviour."
These are peculiar times, and when Republican politicians appear to endorse the killing of judges who make rulings of which they disapprove, it's maybe understandable that a distinguished judge like Sandra Day O'Connor, expressing views calculated to enrage Republican politicians, might sensibly look to a small podium with a weak sound system for fear of being heard too clearly by the likes of Cornyn and DeLay.