About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
The moral responsibility of Sandra Day O'Connor
On the domestic front, Bush's legacy will consist in having succeeded to tilt the balance of the Supreme Court so that American civil liberties will also be rolled back by a generation or more. It is already happening. The new court of Chief Justice Roberts and his sidekick Alito (not to mention the evil twins, Scalia and Thomas) have been able to sway centrist justice Kennedy in a series of recent cases that have enlarged the breach of Church-State separation, made it more difficult to desegregate the country's schools, curtailed students' freedom of speech, and facilitated the ability of big financial interests to affect the outcome of elections (ironically, in the name of free speech). And the list can go on and on, to the delight of conservatives and the dismay of progressives.
But Bush doesn't bear all the moral responsibility for the domestic catastrophe which – make no mistake about it – will cause much suffering and injustice in this land for decades to come. A large part of that moral responsibility has to be laid squarely at the feet of justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who retired, allegedly for family reasons, at the end of 2005.
O'Connor is no liberal, as even a superficial look at her voting record during her tenure at the Supreme Court clearly shows. But she was the centrist that made it possible for the progressive majority to hold the conservative rottweilers, Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas, at bay in a series of increasingly divided decisions (usually 5-4) on issues ranging from abortion to Church-State separation, to affirmative action. She was clearly conscious of the necessity of maintaining a balance in the Court. Her husband told the Wall Street Journal on December 12 , 2000 that O'Connor was holding on because she was weary of what sort of judge President Clinton would appoint to the Supreme Court to replace her.
Yet, Sandra O'Connor failed to maintain the same attitude when George W. came to power, even though it was obvious to everybody that Bush would affect the composition of the Court in a much more dramatic fashion than Clinton would have, and certainly not in a direction that would help maintain the balance that O'Connor held so dear.
I don't know if Sandra O'Connor really retired in order to be close to her Alzheimer-suffering husband (she has been pretty busy after retirement, maintaining a staffed office, hearing cases for both Federal District Courts and Courts of Appeal, and being the Chancellor of the College of William and Mary). But family ties are not a sufficient moral excuse for abdicating one's responsibility to the welfare of a whole nation for a generation to come. She should have done what arch-conservative Rehnquist did: almost literally die on the bench to preserve her legacy and the civil liberties of this nation. Instead, O'Connor is morally responsible for the ongoing process of unraveling racial desegregation, breaking up the wall of separation between Church and State, and entrusting politics ever more into the hands of a small number of powerful and corrupt interests. I hope she can sleep at night, because I wouldn't.