Friday, June 19, 2009

Turning One's Back

Perhaps the most personally loathsome Supreme Court Justice in our nation's history was James McReynolds. Appointed to the bench in 1914 by Woodrow Wilson, McReynolds was an arch-conservative, becoming one of the infamous "four horseman" who tried through hell and high water to stop FDR's New Deal. But there are plenty of conservative judges out there. What distinguished McReynolds was his flagrant, public, and unapologetic racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism. McReynolds refused to speak to the Jewish Justices with whom he served, going so far as to cancel a scheduled photo session of the Court because he would be forced to sit next to Louis Brandeis, and signing a letter urging the President not to "afflict the Court with another Jew." He would often leave the bench if a female attorney rose before the court. And in one of his all time nadirs, he conspicuously swiveled his chair to turn his back on the brilliant Black lawyer, Charles Hamilton Houston, during oral arguments for Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada. Unsurprisingly, Justice McReynolds dissented in that landmark case (one of the very first to strike down a school segregation policy), declaring that integration would "damnify both races".

I was reminded of McReynolds when I read that Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) is refusing to even meet with Sonia Sotomayor, saying his opposition was a "foregone conclusion". It is just the sort of disrespect that McReynolds displayed to Houston so many years ago -- the sort, in other words, that I had hoped we would have moved past by now.

Look -- I understand that to some extent these meetings are a charade -- the factors which will cause any given Senator to vote yea or nay on Judge Sotomayor's nomination are not ones likely to be affected by a one-on-one session. But there are still norms of collegiality and respect that one demonstrates to those persons you believe have a right to be treated with dignity, and this is one of them. Pierce Butler, after all, joined McReynolds in his Gaines dissent, indicating his racial views were none-too-progressive either, yet apparently he didn't not feel personally aggrieved by having to look Houston in the eye. Senator Inhofe has already distinguished himself amongst elected Republicans for making racialist charges against Judge Sotomayor. This, alas, is just par for the course.


1 comment:

Andrew Selbst said...

Part of Obama's original rhetoric, one of his main messages in The Audacity of Hope, and in fact the one that initially drew me in to campaign for him, was the importance restoring collegiality and respect in the Senate. In the book, in didn't seem that his vision of bipartisanship was being incredibly right-wing on some matters and caving on others, but rather just the idea of restoring civility so that people could actually sit down at a table like adults and discuss policy. I suppose if there are no ideas on the Right, there's no incentive to sit at a table, but this was at least theoretically Obama's main idea in a "post-partisan" or bipartisan or whatever, America. He should address this head on, and make that goal widely known.