Friday, April 11, 2008

The Center Holds?

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court
by Jeffrey Toobin

My husband E. encouraged me to read this - he is a Supreme Court buff and knows a lot about the Court's history and the personalities and judicial philosophies of the different justices. This is a really informative and entertaining book. Toobin traces the history of the Court's major decisions, starting approximately with Roe v. Wade in the early 1970s. Of course, his narrative sometimes goes back in time further than Roe, because he is careful to give the background and precedents of the more recent decisions.

There was one difference among the justices' philosophies that struck me as having a parallel with Christian theology and biblical interpretation. Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas (and previously William Rehnquist) are part of a judicial philosophy knows as "strict constructionism" or "originalism." More recently appointed Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito seem to lean this way as well. Originalism means that the judge only considers what he or she believes to be the original intent of the framers when trying to determine if a law is constitutional. This originalism stands in contrast to Justices Steven Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter (and formerly William Brennan and Harry Blackmun), who also take into consideration the culture and the way ideas change over time. This difference is at the heart of many of the split decisions on the Court. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was really at the ideological center of the Court for many years. Since her retirement, that place has been somewhat taken by Justice Anthony Kennedy, although he sides with the originalists more often than not.

I could not help but think about the ongoing controversy between Christians and other people of faith over the interpretation of sacred texts. Those conflicts come down to a similar dilemma - do we take the Bible literally, word for word, assuming that every word of it is exactly as God intended it to be? Or do we take into consideration the fact that the Bible was written by fallible men and assume that it must constantly be reexamined if we are to grasp what its message is for us today? Those of you who know me know that I personally fall into the latter camp, but I do not question the sincerity of those who disagree. Most of the most vicious arguments among Christians today boil down to scriptural authority and biblical interpretation.

As always, the truth very likely lies somewhere in between the extremes of either side of an issue. As I read The Nine, my admiration for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor increased a lot. She seemed to make a genuine effort to find the middle ground on contentious issues and seek ways to be fair to everyone. Even when I did not agree with her rulings, I can understand now that she really tried to make sure everyone got a fair hearing and that every one's voice was heard and considered. Whenever possible, she tried to find a solution where both parties got something (unless one party was a total dirtbag and clearly in the wrong). She had an amazing ability to sense the tenor of American culture - what we could and could not tolerate. I wish those of us who get weary of ongoing conflict in our beloved PCUSA could find a way to meet in the middle in such a way. O'Connor was able to preserve the equilibrium on the Court for many years.

With O'Connor's retirement, the Court lost a moderating voice and vote. I hope another center will emerge in the near future, or much of the precedent of the last three decades could get chucked out the window.

Reverent Reader


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