Rhetoric Referee: Changing the Subject

The nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh (see previous post) gave opponents an opportunity to use two tried-and-true (or perhaps false) rhetorical techniques: ad hominem and changing the subject.

The real subject of this nomination fight was whether the Supreme Court should seek to expand the law of the land under modern interpretations, or restrain itself to the original rules as written into the Constitution, which reserve rights to the states and the people.

The Constitution established three equal branches of government: the legislative to create the laws; the administrative to administer and enforce them; and the judicial to determine whether the laws and their enforcement are valid and consistent with existing law and the Constitution. If not, the court may direct the administrative branch to enforce a law differently, or sometimes force the legislative branch to write new law that would be valid.

During the tumultuous 1950s, ’60s and ’70s the Supreme Court’s role began to change, especially under chief justices Earl Warren (1953-1969) and Warren E. Burger (1969-1986). It expanded civil rights and civil liberties — and federal and judicial power by, among other things, declaring its rulings on those matters the law of the land. Nixon appointee Burger was a conservative and critic of the Warren court, but nevertheless joined the majority in 1973’s Roe v. Wade case in finding an implied right to privacy in the Constitution that prohibited states from banning abortions.

President Ronald Reagan elevated Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist, the most conservative member of the Burger court, to chief justice in 1986. Like fellow Reagan nominee Judge Robert Bork, Rehnquist was considered an originalist, a jurist who looked to the original meaning of the Constitution and the laws rather than interpreting them to reflect current existing conditions and norms. Rehnquist held to a legal concept of federalism that in relied on the Tenth Amendment, which reserved any rights not enumerated in the Constitution to the states or to the people.

federalistlogoThis school of thought, which became more prominent in the 1980s, gave rise to the Federalist Society, which describes itself as “a group of conservatives and libertarians dedicated to reforming the current legal order. We are committed to the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.”

All five of the nine sitting Supreme Court justices appointed by Republican presidents  — Chief Justice John Roberts (George W. Bush, 2005), Clarence Thomas (George H.W. Bush, 1991), Samuel Alito (G.W. Bush, 2006), Neil Gorsuch (Donald Trump, 2017) and Kavanaugh (Trump, 2018) — have Federalist Society credentials. The Roberts court has, of late, consistently ruled based on narrow interpretations of the law rather than broader issues of social policy.

Opponents who think of the Supreme Court as a superlegislature often argue that a conservative court “will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade,” but that’s not how courts work. Courts rule on the facts of a specific case, based on existing law and precedent. During their nomination hearings, both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh said Roe v. Wade is settled law. It won’t change, no matter how much liberals may fear it will or conservatives may want it to.

People don’t understand legal procedures or judicial policy, but they do understand the drama of politics. When the Kavanaugh nomination process seemed to be proceeding smoothly, opponents changed the subject at the last minute to something more dramatic, and started attacking the man rather than his judicial philosophy. They changed the subject — twice.

Author: hwfielding

A retired newspaper editor telling my own stories now.

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