Sunday, May 31, 2009


The fun is back in national politics, as the right grapples with the first big moment of the Obama administration--the nomination of Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. She's a great pick in terms of both qualifications and political savvy, and it's been interesting (and, I would say, enlightening) to watch the debate of how the confirmation process will go. But I've also enjoyed listening to the old debates about the judiciary, and my hope is that the confirmation hearings will highlight this issue more.

For me, the most interesting piece on this came from the Wall Street Journal online. Titled, "Republicans, Let's Grow Up," this editorial calls for a thoughtful and articulate conservative critique of Sotomayor. The argument is that this is an opportunity for Republicans to ask important questions about the role of the judicial branch, an argument the WSJ believes that the GOP can win.

I find this fascinating, in part because it stands in such stark contrast to my experience with the Republican party. I have known the party of Gingrich and Limbaugh and Cheney, the bucolic, loud, angry old white men who seem to view government as some sort of bogeyman that wants nothing more than to take away their assault rifles, abort babies indiscriminately, and take all of their wealth in the form of taxation. I have never known a thoughtful, articulate conservatism.

In particular, the use of the phrase "judicial activism" has always bothered me. So too has "legislating from the bench." Both of these strike me as hollow rhetoric meant to demonize an entire (and vital) branch of American democracy. In my mind, a judiciary must be activist, because anytime a law is overturned or ruled unconstitutional, action has been taken. and if a court cannot make those sorts of decisions, then the courts are of no use.

For example, let's assume that a group of states in a particular region of the country wanted to keep a large group of people from voting, attending schools with the majority group, or patronizing certain establishments, the legislative and executive bodies of those states would pass and enforce discriminatory laws aimed at alienating those citizens. This would leave the only recourse for justice in that hands of the court. Thus, Brown v. Board of Education came to be.

An of course conservatives believe in judicial activism. They've been working for decades to overturn Roe v. Wade, which is only possible through a judicial reinterpretation of that decision and the overturning of precedent (admittedly, a constitutional amendment would do the trick, but the founders made that process intentionally difficult, so a revision to the foundational document of the nation banning a rare medical procedure is, shall we say, unlikely). But it would take a very activist judge to find any state's restrictive abortion ban constitutional.

Likewise, any time a court strikes down a municipal or state gun-control law as being overly restrictive of second amendment rights, that court is being activist, but you don't hear the right-wing demagogues shouting down such decisions. Truly, "activism" is a relative and meaningless term.

So, let's hear the arguments. What is the role of the judiciary, and how should judges interpret the constitution?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More Good Reads--Travel Version

My most recent bout of reading (following on the heels of reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) has been to tackle some Bill Bryson. I've seen his travel books in the bookstore for some time now and wondered if I would enjoy his prose. And how...

It started the week that Summer was at Women's Conference and I took the kids to the library. I found The Mother Tongue by the said Bryson, a rollickingly good read about things linguistic. Bryson delves into the history of the English language and the odd quirks that make it such a fun language. The writing is witty and fun, which, given the topic (historical and comparative linguistics--woo hoo!). A bit too brief for the devoted word nerd on break between terms, this would actually be fun as a text (or supplement) for a lower-division History of the English Language course.

After that, I decided to tackle some of Bryson's travel writing, of which thereis quite a bit. I found at the library In a Sunburned Country, which recounts a few trips in the late 1990s to Australia, all in the years leading up the the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

As a bit of a preface, my father served his mission in Australia (the Australia West Mission), and he's told me some fun stories of the people and land. But after reading Bryson's book (in which he hits all of the major cities and some of the remote backcountry), I'm convinced dad's been holding out on me.

For example, Bryson spends considerale time outlining the various ways a traveler (or, I assume, resident Aussie) can meet an unfortunate end--poisonous spiders, snakes, and sea creatures; Cassowaries; sharks; rip tides; dehydration; being run over by a road train; and, I suppose, bar fights (Bryson does a lot of drinking, and he tends to forget much of what transpires at the watering hole, so I have to surmise on this one). He makes Down Under seem awfully dangerous.

Then there's the human history, how a penal colony transformed into a modern civilization, hosting two Olympic games and having as its most famous (or second-most famous, possibly, after Uluru) landmark an opera house.

Among that history we have a political system that melds the oddest elements of the American and English systems, a Prime Minister who once vanished without a trace (see the aforementioned rip tides) and a territory that decided it did not wish for statehood when it was offered.

The picture Bryson paints is that of a multifaceted, imperfect, but fascinating land, one where a great diversity of topography, climate, cultures, and histories intersect. I came away from reading In a Sunburned Country convinced Austrlaia is hot, dry, hostile, remote, dangerous, and definitely somewhere I wish to visit. I could probably even live in Perth, given the chance...