My Turn: The death of democracy feels like this

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Published: 7/11/2022 9:52:48 AM
Modified: 7/11/2022 9:52:33 AM

On Nov. 22, 1963, I was sitting in my eighth grade art class when some adult knocked on the door and told us that President Kennedy had been shot and that we should immediately go to the cafeteria where the school was gathering.

It was a Friday. The school’s black and white television had been set in the front of the room. The principal talked and then sent us home early.

That weekend, semblances of normalcy — cars on the road, stores being open — disconcerted me because nothing felt normal. Death and despondency permeated everything. This month, nearly 59 years later, the Supreme Court-induced death of political and legal freedoms, in conjunction with the Jan. 6 hearings, has conjured that same, almost palpable, feeling of despair.

Let’s backtrack for a minute and pause to praise Cassidy Hutchinson, the aide to Trump’s final chief-of staff Mark Meadows. Hutchinson provided crucial details to the Jan. 6 Congressional Committee this week. She testified that Trump knew supporters were armed before he urged them to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell.”

Hutchinson’s courage in speaking out, although uplifting, is also notable — and depressing — for its singularity. Where are the other 99.9% of Republicans other than Liz Cheney? Why are they complacent about, or quietly supportive of, the attempted coup d’etat?

Perhaps even more frightening than Trump himself is that Trumpism, based on beliefs and policies of authoritarianism, racism and misogyny, has taken on a life of its own. Trumpism controls the Republican Party. It gets oxygen from Trump, but it no longer really needs him.

And Trumpism also permeates the Supreme Court. The court’s super majority recently has abolished the constitutional right to abortion, taken a sledgehammer to the wall of separation between church and state, vastly expanded gun rights, validated racist gerrymandering, gutted voting rights, and neutered the government’s ability to control corporate greed and harm.

The high court’s decision to overrule Roe v Wade surprised no one. Surprising, perhaps, is how unsubtle the opinion is in imposing the majority’s religious and political views on the country. The case is a demonstration of raw political-judicial power.

The decision made me furious. It also put me in a deep state of mourning. It caused me to reflect on how in the political sphere, as well as in the rest of life, the finality of death is so much more poignant, powerful and personal than the anticipation of it, however inevitable and imminent.

There is much to mourn. Do you remember Chief Justice John Roberts at his confirmation hearing saying that as a justice he would simply act as an umpire, calling balls and strikes. Remember Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett testifying that Roe and Casey constituted settled law? Remember when the country thought of the court as the protector of rights and held the justices in high regard?

The court’s recent decision upholding the right of the football coach to lead Christian prayers on the 50-yard line after the game also is instructive. The basis of the majority decision was that the coach was engaged in a private act, private speech, private prayer. That was not true. The dissent included a photograph of student-players gathered around the coach, all praying at midfield. The case demonstrates how the Supreme Court, in order to reach the result it wants, will invent facts as well as law.

Inventing law, adopting a new legal doctrine, is the weapon employed this week to gut the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to limit carbon emissions. That decision, political at its core, has serious ramifications. It will, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it, “let our planet burn.”

The court’s recent decision about carrying loaded weapons affirms its deletion from the Second Amendment the words “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state.” With that excision, the Second Amendment says only that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” words that lead inexorably to the result the majority wants.

The court also recently blocked the Louisiana federal district court decision that found a violation of the Voting Rights Act and required congressional lines to be redrawn. One third of Louisiana’s population is Black, but only one of the six congressional seats, according to the legislature, should be a majority minority district, which, thanks to SCOTUS, is the map that now will govern the fall’s elections.

Also this fall, the Supreme Court will decide whether state legislatures, to the exclusion of state courts, can be empowered to decide state law challenges in federal elections including the presidency. Just imagine state legislatures controlled by Trump loyalists.

We should take no solace in bromides about the resiliency of our political system. The country is in deep trouble. Trumpism could well prevail in 2022 and 2024. If it does, there will be no Supreme Court to save us and no Congress to intervene. Protests will be tolerated only to a point, and we will be left with the finality of mourning the death of liberty and democracy.

Bill Newman, a Northampton-based lawyer and host of the Bill Newman Show on WHMP, writes a monthly column.

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