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.

Rhetoric Referee: Ad hominem

When the law is on your side,  argue the law.
When the facts are on your side, argue the facts.
When neither the law nor the facts are on your side, call the other lawyer names.

— Anonymous

I try not to address political topics in the heat of the moment, so forgive me for delivering old news. Earlier this month we added a new justice to the United States Supreme Court. The final days of the process were tense, angry and partisan — and give us good examples of two rhetorical techniques known as ad hominem attacks and changing the subject.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh replaces retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, for whom he clerked early in his career. Kennedy, who was considered a swing vote on many of the court’s 5-4 decisions in recent years, was nominated by conservative President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and unanimously approved by the Senate in 1988.

It’s tempting to say that those were the good old days of civility and “advice and consent” by the Senate, which at that time required a two-thirds majority to approve judicial nominees. The truth is that Kennedy was uncontroversial only in comparison to Reagan’s first nominee to replace the retiring moderate Justice Lewis Powell (also a swing vote) — conservative Judge Robert Bork.

Judge Robert Bork
Judge Robert Bork is best remembered today as the subject of ad hominem attacks when he was nominated to the Supreme Court — a technique now known as Borking. Source: Federalist Society

In his legal philosophy, Bork was considered an originalist: He interpreted the Constitution to be applied as it was written without modern conclusions such as an implied right to privacy, a key element of the Roe v. Wade decision that applied abortion law nationwide instead of as one of the laws not enumerated in the Constitution and thus reserved to the states.

Democrats and others feared that this approach would lead the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, and thus opposed Bork on ideological grounds rather than his qualifications. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D- Massachusetts, delivered this famous speech within an hour after the nomination:

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.

Other senators, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden, D-Delaware, opposed Bork on his legal philosophy, saying that originalism was at odds with modern interpretations that a right to privacy exists beyond the text of the Constitution.

The committee voted 9-5 against Bork, who was expected to withdraw his nomination before a full Senate vote. He didn’t, saying instead:

There should be a full debate and a final Senate decision. In deciding on this course, I harbor no illusions. But a crucial principle is at stake. That principle is the way we select the men and women who guard the liberties of all the American people. That should not be done through public campaigns of distortion. If I withdraw now, that campaign would be seen as a success, and it would be mounted against future nominees. For the sake of the Federal judiciary and the American people, that must not happen. The deliberative process must be restored.

Bork’s nomination was rejected in the full Senate, 58-42, but the attacks on the man rather than his qualifications have given us a new name for such ad-hominem attacks, especially in political appointments, that has lasted three decades: to Bork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rhetoric Referee: The Straw Man

 

tilt shift lens photography of brown stand twigs
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

American political discussions violate many rules of logic and debate, but one of the most outrageous, easiest to spot, and hardest to parry is the Straw Man argument. Usually this takes the form of one side oversimplifying and distorting a point the other side has made, asserting that this is the core of the opponent’s argument, and then proceeding to ridicule it as simplistic, unsupported and possibly dangerous.

In this era of sound bites and tweets, it’s most frequently used on complex issues that require many different approaches to solve, such as school or workplace violence. A true solution will require cooperation on mental health, school and workplace security, and specific, reasonable, enforceable, control of access to weapons and ammunition. In a complex society, reasonable laws for Connecticut will not be reasonable for Texas or Alaska. It will take time to work these out.

But in the heat of the latest incident, time is a problem because Something Must Be Done Now. Enter the Straw Man. When one side proposes further gun laws such as age restrictions or limits on certain weapons, their opponents counter with “They just want to take away your guns.” When the other side proposes permitting trained, licensed school employees to carry weapons for self-defense, the first says they just want to turn all teachers into armed guards.

Neither is entirely true, but to fully explain their true proposals requires detail, nuance, and give-and-take. In a world of oversimplification and lack of attention to detail, we’re likely doomed to hear more from the Straw Man next time.