Friday, February 08, 2019

The Cruelty is the Point: SCOTUS Edition

In my roundup the other day, I included the case of an Muslim death row inmate in Alabama who had received a stay of execution by the 11th Circuit because the state was refusing to let his Imam be with him during his execution (the state would have allowed a Christian chaplain, who was a prison employee, in the room). I noted that Alabama appealing the stay -- but I almost didn't bother, since in my head I figured there was no chance the Supreme Court would get involved. Why would they? The stay was at most a minor inconvenience, the Establishment Clause problem seemed obvious and extreme, and there was no pressing issue here that demanded high court intervention to stop the case from proceeding at its own pace.

Shows what I know. In a 5-4 decision (over a brutal Kagan dissent), the Supreme Court vacated the stay and allowed the execution to proceed. The inmate had filed his challenge too late -- not that it was actually barred, mind you, the Court just decided of its own discretion that the inmate was dilatory and that therefore it wouldn't allow the 11th Circuit to hear the case (never mind that, based on the record available, it seems that the inmate filed his case in a perfectly timely fashion).

I have to confess, this rattled me -- more than I would have anticipated -- and I'm clearly not the only one. There are times when courts issue rulings I disagree with, and there are times that courts -- even the Supreme Court, with near-infinite discretion over its own docket -- are effectively compelled to step in and issue a decision in fraught circumstances where some people are going to be displeased with the outcome.

But this wasn't one of those cases. There was no need for the Court to step in here; indeed, it was a shockingly aggressive intervention in a case where the balance of equities seemed to run decisively in favor of the inmate. In this context, the Court's decision -- and the meager faux-technical rationale behind (that doesn't even seem to stand on its own weight) -- feels worse than wrong. It feels petty. It feels mean-spirited, and it feels cruel. And while there are many times where I disagree with this Court on important issues, it is rare that I've felt that they were cruel.

But that's what this decision was. I don't have a philosophical objection to the death penalty (though I have a welter of objections to how it is administered in practice). But I've always felt very strongly that it is important to treat even condemned inmates with respect and dignity -- that capital punishment does not license dehumanization. We're already locking them in a cage and then killing them, visiting further indignities upon them seems gratuitous. So whenever I see rabble-rousers start targeting "last meals", or a prisoner's few hours of "recreation time" because they're prisoners, they're the worst of the worst, I blanch. Such minor nods towards the continued humanity of the condemned are deeply rooted in our nation's history and tradition; they are part of what separates a justice system from unchannelled and unconstrained vengeance.

It should be needless to say that allowing a man facing execution whatever comfort and support he might get from a pastor of his faith is also part of that tradition: it is cruel -- obviously and needlessly -- to deny him even that much. Indeed, the obviousness of this point is why Alabama has a (Christian)  chaplain on staff and available to begin with. So to deny that small comfort to an inmate because of his Muslim faith represents such a striking departure from tradition and practice that it is hard not to see it as motivated by religious animus -- that Muslims don't deserve whatever comfort and pastoral care they might receive from their false clerics. Particularly in the wake of the Muslim ban decision, one could forgive those who now seriously wonder if the basic human equality of the Muslim community is acknowledged at the highest court in our land.

This decision is not a "great" decision. It sets no sweeping precedent, it's (nominal) basis on the alleged "delay" in filing means it doesn't even constrain future cases brought under similar facts. But in a way, its insignificance makes it worse rather than better. This was not a great case. It was a petty case. And the Court's pettiness in interceding is, in its way, far more indicting of its character than many far more jurisprudentially consequential rulings.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Fraud Squad! Roundup

In a meeting, I got a phone call from my bank about potentially fraudulent transactions on my credit card. Had I recently ordered $50 worth of fast food pizza? No, I hadn't -- and so the account is frozen, and presumably the charges will be reversed.

An hour later, upon returning to my desk, I had the bizarre joy of seeing a confirmation from Domino's promising me that my "pizza is on the way [to Houston, Texas]!"

Anyway, long story short: I'm getting pizza for dinner tonight.

* * *

Jenny Singer of the Forward interviews Young Gravy, a Black Jewish rapper (and GW student). It's a really interesting and worth your time (I'm saying that not just because I think I played a role in putting the interview together!).

I think I missed this when it came out, but a Texas court struck down the Indian Child Welfare Act's adoption rules this past fall, saying that act's preferences for Indian children to stay with Indian families was racially discriminatory against non-Indians. The Judge, incidentally, was Reed O'Connor -- the same guy who just struck down Obamacare. He's certainly setting himself up as the go-to-guy for tip-of-the-spear conservative judicial activism.

Alabama was all set to execute a Muslim inmate -- but refused to allow a Muslim chaplain to be present with him during the execution (they did offer a Christian chaplain, which unsurprisingly the inmate did not consider to be a satisfactory substitute). 11th Circuit stays the execution due to the "powerful Establishment Clause claim" (and plausible RLUIPA claim). Alabama is appealing to the Supreme Court.

A new poll finds that over half of Israeli Jews agree that the controversial "nation-state" law must be either abandoned outright or fixed to confirm the state's commitment to democratic equality for all citizens.

A Cameroonian official has apologized for threatening an ethnic minority group by comparing them to Jews in pre-WWII Germany, namely: "In Germany, there was a very rich community who wielded all economic power .... They (the Jews) were so arrogant that the German people were frustrated. Then one day, a certain Hitler came to power and put them in the gas chambers."

I have no takeaways from the Likud primaries except celebrating Oren Hazan's imminent departure from the Knesset. Goooood riddance.

Iraqi Jews commemorate family members who were "disappeared" by state secret police.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

What We Like About Each Other

Daniel Gordis has an interesting piece in Bloomberg about a co-existence program that brings together Palestinian and Israeli teenagers in the Gush Etzion area (which is inside the West Bank, just south of Jerusalem).

Aside from the substantive content of the piece, there were two tertiary elements that stood out. One is the notation that Gush Etzion had Jewish residents prior to Israel's establishment -- these Jews were expelled when Jordan took over the territory in the wake of Israel's independence war. Many of the current settlers in that territory descend from families which were forced to flee.

That sort of story is rarely raised. And to be clear, in a large sense for me it doesn't matter -- I've long maintained that part of a permanent settlement between Israel and Palestine will likely include a proviso that not everyone gets to live on the precise patch of land they'd most prefer, and that applies to Jewish families whose roots in Gush Etzion go deep as much as the descendants of Palestinian refugees who fled pre-67 Israel during the Nakba. But it is nonetheless a complicating narrative in a region where simplicity is too often craved, and I think that's important.

The other interesting portion came at the very end:
“I have another question,” an Israeli teenager asked her Palestinian counterparts at a recent meeting. “Is there anything about our culture that you actually like?”
The Palestinian kids were quiet for a moment, and then they laughed. “We love your music,” they said. Specifically Eyal Golan, an Israeli rock star who sings in Hebrew, but in a Middle Eastern, almost Arabic-sounding style. “We don’t understand the Hebrew; but we listen to him all the time; we know all the words by heart.”
The way this is framed by Gordis, one might think Golan -- an Israeli who sings "in a Middle Eastern, almost Arabic-sounding style" -- is appropriating culture that isn't his (think of consternation regarding Israeli Jews selling hummus, or wearing a keffiyeh). Yet as one might have suspected, Golan is himself a Middle Eastern Jew -- his family hails from Morocco and Yemen. So when he sings in a "Middle Eastern" or "Arabic-sounding" style -- that's his style. He has equal claim to as compared to any other person from Yemen or Morocco.

Anyway, as I said, these are tertiary points. The article is pretty light, all told, but worth a read nonetheless.

Monday, February 04, 2019

The Ballad of a Black Republican

Thomas Farr was a Trump nominee for a North Carolina district court judgeship.

Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), the sole Black Republican in the Senate, opposed his nomination, citing concerns about Farr's racial history. This isn't something Scott does on the regular; indeed, he's been a consistent supporter of President Trump's judicial nominees.

Now, as we know, the Republican position on racism has long been to angrily deny that they're okay with racism, while at the same time insisting that any alleged instance of racism that inconveniences them in any way is a left-wing smear that (sadly!) distracts attention from the "real" racism. In the event "real" racism does rear its head, the Republicans insist, they will be its most uncompromising foes.

So one might think, then, that if one of the few Black Republicans in Congress, who has not made a habit of accusing Trump nominees of racism, says "hey -- this guy presents a problem", that they might take that claim seriously and abandon Farr for a different Trump nominee whose legal views are almost certain to be materially identical to Farr in virtually all respects. After all, surely nobody could accuse Tim Scott of only leveling a racism claim reflexively, against any and all Republicans, to benefit a left-wing political agenda?

In the three-page memo [signed by 31 conservative leaders], they urged Scott to reconsider his position, arguing a smear campaign was launched by “unprincipled left-wing activists who hate Tom” and suggesting Scott was complicit in the partisan attack.
“In these difficult days, when allegations of racism are carelessly, and all too often deliberately, thrown about without foundation, the result is not racial healing, but greater racial polarization,” they wrote. “Joining with those who taunt every political opponent a ‘racist’ as a partisan political tactic to destroy their reputations is not helpful to the cause of reconciliation.”
Scott, to his credit, remains unbowed:
“For some reason the authors of this letter choose to ignore ... facts, and instead implicate that I have been co-opted by the left and am incapable of my own decision making,” Scott said in a statement to McClatchy, adding he votes for Republican judicial nominees “99 percent of the time.”
“Why they have chosen to expend so much energy on this particular nomination I do not know, but what I do know is they have not spent anywhere near as much time on true racial reconciliation efforts, decrying comments by those like (Republican U.S. Rep.) Steve King, or working to move our party together towards a stronger, more unified future,” Scott continued, referring to the Iowa congressman who recently suggested he was sympathetic to white supremacists in a New York Times interview.
But you'll note -- and this is not Scott's fault -- that whatever credit Scott might have thought he'd earn as a good Republican soldier was unable to be cashed at the conservative bank. Much like the anti-Zionist Jew who finally sees an attack on Israel he actually thinks is antisemitic, the Black Republican who finally sees a case of conservative racism will find that he is viewed no differently than any other Black person who levels a charge of racism -- untrustworthy, unthoughtful, probably a tool, definitely a liar. That he generally buys into the conservative view on politics -- it doesn't matter. That he's more often ran cover for conservatives on questions of racism -- it doesn't matter.

That's the sad ballad of the Black Republican. Tim Scott might genuinely think that the reason that racism claims are discredited by Republicans is that so many of them are, in his view, made by bad actors acting in bad faith. But he'll find that, in truth, all it takes to become viewed as a bad actor is to be a Black actor who speaks of racism in a way that inconveniences Republican. Push comes to shove, they don't trust him any more than any other African-American public figure

Sunday, February 03, 2019

How the NFL Was Integrated

Apparently, the NFL was integrated a year before Major League Baseball, when the LA Rams signed former UCLA college standouts Kenny Washington and Woodrow Strode. It's never had the same cultural resonance as Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier -- probably because the NFL wasn't that big a deal in the 1940s.

But there's also a key difference in the narrative. In baseball, Branch Rickey looms large, and he represents White America's favorite civil rights story: White people, more or less out of the goodness of their hearts, deciding of their own initiative to do the right thing.

Yet the story of the Rams is different. The team leadership had no real interest in integration. Rather:
The Rams had just moved to Los Angeles from Cleveland, after smelling dollar signs on the West Coast. They needed a home and wanted to play at the L.A. Coliseum. But the stadium was publicly funded — owned by taxpayers black and white alike — and black sportswriters in Los Angeles successfully hammered local officials into requiring the team to integrate if the Rams were to play there.
This is the story where Black political power and influence moves the needle -- a different story, one with much more in common with the Black Power tradition than the sometimes overly moralized normative civil rights story associated (a bit unfairly) with Martin Luther King. The NFL was integrated because Black people in Los Angeles had sufficient clout to force it to happen. This isn't to say that there were no White players who were receptive audiences -- I have no doubt that the community had at least some allies among White movers and shakers in LA. But the central part of the story isn't White people choosing to the right thing, it's Black people being in a position so that it didn't much matter if White people wanted to do the right thing or not.