What's Tony Thinking

The Not So “Supreme” Court


Just when you think things couldn’t possible get any more chaotic, they do. And if you thought the U.S. Supreme Court was a force for calming the stormy national seas, think again.

We hadn’t even caught our breath from the Dobbs decision striking down Roe v. Wade, when we get three more head-snappers: decisions invalidating a gun control measure in New York, another allowing school prayer, and one de-clawing the E.P.A.

The school prayer one is a local issue here in Washington State. A football coach in Bremerton, Washington made a practice of post-game prayer at mid-field for all who were interested. Except the Supremes seemed to think that Coach Kennedy was just off on the sideline by himself having a few moments of private prayer, and who could object to that? Yes, if that is what was going on, go for it. But, as Seattle Times columnist, Danny Westneat, lays out it wasn’t quite so simple or private.

You might say, “You, a minister, are objecting to prayer?” I certainly don’t object to prayer. But I do object to coercion. Even if the post-game prayer was said to be “voluntary,” when it is led by a team coach, is it really voluntary? And when it is specifically “Christian” prayer in a public school setting, with people of many and no faiths, how does that work? Not well.

Two days ago, in another decision, the Court struck a blow against what some term “the regulatory state,” in particular the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to take action nationally to reduce the use of fossil fuel and so arrest climate change. This is a good illustration of a long-standing philosophical debate about the role of the federal government. Are the feds the agent of progress, change and justice? Or are they heavy-handed and out of touch with local realities?

I’ve read some good arguments for something called “subsidiarity,” which basically means devolving power downward to local governments. The idea is that government that is closer to the situation is likely to be wiser and more effective. Well, now we will get to test that. There are some encouraging signs. Consider this report on city and state action on climate change. Out here in Wallowa County there is considerable sympathy for curtailing federal powers in favor of ones that are closer to the ground and for trusting local citizens to make good decisions . . . which sometimes turns out well and other times not so well.

On the matter of the New York gun control law there was a provocative column from a self-identified “liberal” who lives in New York City and says she wants a gun. She reflects a feeling that seems widespread: a concern about personal safety amid a rising crime rate. Threatened by a former intimate partner, Laura Adkins, writes: “I also understand why some of my fellow liberals would like to ban guns outright. But guns are already prevalent among those who don’t follow the rules: Despite strong gun laws in my state and city, illegal trafficking abounds.”

This calls to mind my recent blog on guns, drawing on David French, who argued that there isn’t a correlation between gun ownership and homicide. Still, having private citizens need or feel they need to be armed seems a bad sign. Perhaps, the subsidiarity argument applies in reverse, maybe New York State or City is in a better position to legislate wisely?

Any chance of finding a silver lining in these very dark clouds? Maybe this . . . if we’re paying attention we are getting an overdue crash course in a neglected but essential topic, U.S. History and Government, a.k.a. Civics. I know that’s a big “if.” But say you are listening the January 6 hearings, they are quite instructive about how our system is supposed to work and how vulnerable it and we are to bad actors. So too this recent column by Jamelle Bouie on the powers and role of the Supreme Court is also very illuminating.

If we thought all this stuff was sort of general stare decisis, that is settled, think again . . . and again . . . and again. Strange, terrible thought: do we have Donald Trump to thank for no longer taking our form of government for granted?


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