Saturday, October 9, 2004

G.W.B. on Dred Scott

We watched the debate with friends last night, quasi-Superbowl-party style.  I wasn't impressed with the town hall model, particularly for the way is positioned the audience members as dupes--mere question-readers, polite listeners (to say nothing of the homogeneity of the sample of folks from the St. Louis metro area).  I know the candidates simply wouldn't allow for follow up questions, but what good is a town hall forum if the questions are safely sanitized (which we can expect in all of the debates) *and* the question-askers don't get to ask for clarification, nuance, specificity?  I want answers.

For a few minutes this morning, I've been reading these fine entries on the debate.  Good points all around. The two strangest moments of the debate--for me--were the small business, lumber company setup (Want to buy some wood?) and the reference to Dred Scott as an example of justices failing to perform a "strict" reading of the U.S. Constitution and instead to render a decision clouded by personal opinion.  Relative to the Dred Scott reference, the live events in the debate, however, were neither clear nor understandable as GWB spoke; as I looked back at the transcript this morning, I thought the record, as formatted with sentence and paragraph breaks, was generous to the President's fumbling of "slaves as personal property" as a matter of "personal opinion":

I would pick somebody who would not allow their personal opinion to get in the way of the law. I would pick somebody who would strictly interpret the Constitution of the United States.

Let me give you a couple of examples, I guess, of the kind of person I wouldn't pick.

I wouldn't pick a judge who said that the Pledge of Allegiance couldn't be said in a school because it had the words "under God" in it. I think that's an example of a judge allowing personal opinion to enter into the decision-making process as opposed to a strict interpretation of the Constitution.

Another example would be the Dred Scott case, which is where judges, years ago, said that the Constitution allowed slavery because of personal property rights.

That's a personal opinion. That's not what the Constitution says. The Constitution of the United States says we're all -- you know, it doesn't say that. It doesn't speak to the equality of America. [emphasis added]

And so, I would pick people that would be strict constructionists. We've got plenty of lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Legislators make law; judges interpret the Constitution.

And I suspect one of us will have a pick at the end of next year -- the next four years. And that's the kind of judge I'm going to put on there. No litmus test except for how they interpret the Constitution.

A few critiques of Bush's resorting to the Dred Scott case to address his criteria for justice selections have--as you might expect--already made it to the blogosphere.  Particularly thoughtful takes turned up here and here.  I'm sure the reference to the case was a grab at local resonance (much like Edwards' reference to the number of U.N. workers running the Afghanistan elections as fewer than it would take to setup polling stations in Cleveland); the judgment about slaves as citizens stemmed from St. Louis some 150 years ago. It resulted from Missouri's slave-state status set against Illinois, a free state, just across Mississippi River. 

The most ironic aspect of Bush's reference to the case is that Justice Roger Taney--in 1857--rendered a judgment against Dred Scott and his fundamental human rights because--as I understand it--Taney read the U.S. Constitution as a "strict constructionist," which explains the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) as a correction to the dangerous mis-applications of constitutional law along strict, "that's what the words say" readings of "property" and "citizenship."  With "strict constructionist" justices, then, I suppose you get readings of the law that are so narrow and rigid that constitutional amendments are required to ensure equal rights for all people.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at October 9, 2004 12:24 PM to Media

"That's a personal opinion. That's not what the Constitution says. The Constitution of the United States says we're all -- you know, it doesn't say that. It doesn't speak to the equality of America."

That one almost jumped me out of my seat. Talk about a head-fake. W almost got tricked into having to demonstrate actual knowledge. Fortunately, he recovered.

Ah well. The irony of "strict constitutionism" after having given the answer he did about the Patriot Act, which is unconstitutional in any number of ways, was just another in a long list...


Posted by: collin at October 9, 2004 1:09 PM

Long list...agreed. Fortunately there were snacks--carrot cake, facaccia, tossed salad--and drinks to make the whole debacle more festive-seeming.

Every time GWB speaks (hell, even when he's listening--attentively?), I think of Herman's Head, but only with three ego-personas--one who watches the light-signals on the clock (Hurry up and change to amber!), one who obsesses about war-mongering (War!) and one who grabs feverishly for catch phrases and documentation in the cyclone (money-grab, phone booth game-style) that is GWB's ideational wind-tunnel. Gusty...etc.

In short, this is how I rationalize his mention of the clock, his endless emphases on war justifications and his scatteredness.

Posted by: Derek at October 9, 2004 1:39 PM