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Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.
“Shared values.” We’ve heard them mentioned by leaders trying to find common ground despite deep political divisions. It’s a nice thought, but it lacks an explanation of just what those values are.
Of course, everybody reveres the Constitution, though we cannot agree on what many parts of it mean. The most important message may be that our system of government is valuable and we should make saving it our highest priority, even if that means sometimes we will be disappointed or even angry with the particular results.
For example, take the supposedly neutral courts, where judges can become the accused. In rendering their rulings, they can come under attack. Three recent court decisions, unpopular with many people, illustrate the ongoing struggle between respecting the system while disliking a decision.
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and now former President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, took the lead in promoting the story that there had been massive fraud in the 2020 election, which, he claimed, Trump had won.
At the White House rally before the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, he urged the crowd on and said, “I’m willing to stake my reputation” on there having been criminal vote theft. In the end, he seems to have lost his gamble.
A New York state appeals court suspended Giuliani’s right to practice law, pending a final decision to disbar him. The court ruled that he “communicated demonstrably false and misleading statements to courts, lawmakers and the public at large” without any proof of his claims of fraud or ballot tampering.
For the first time, a Trump leader was held responsible for the false claim that Trump had been cheated of an election victory. Defenders promptly appeared. Trump backed Giuliani and attacked New York and its courts. A former Harvard Law School professor defended him on the grounds that all lawyers exaggerate.
In Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court freed Bill Cosby from prison after he had been convicted of sexually assaulting a woman. The conviction was based almost entirely on his admission of guilt, made only after the district attorney said he lacked sufficient proof and promised Cosby would not be charged.
The DA wanted to strip Cosby of any reason to invoke his constitutional right not to testify against himself. That way he could be honest, without risk of going to prison, in the case brought by the woman who sued him. He admitted his guilt in that case and paid her $3.38 million.
A later DA used his admission against him and had him convicted and sent to prison. The state Supreme Court said the DA, an official representative of Pennsylvania, could not renege and effectively violate Cosby’s Fifth Amendment right under the Constitution.
Understandably, there was a strong reaction against the court decision. After all, Cosby was guilty. The court had to withstand tough criticism for making an unpopular decision when protecting a constitutional right.
The U.S. Supreme Court faced withering criticism for its recent decision that two changes to Arizona election law were not illegal under the Voting Rights Act. The court voted along conservative-liberal lines in making its 6-3 decision.
Arizona law had been changed to ban people from casting ballots at an incorrect precinct on Election Day and to prevent third parties from collecting voters’ ballots, unless they were family or household members, caregivers or postal workers.
These were the issues, and the court found these changes were non-discriminatory. The dissenters believed that the changes would more heavily affect minority voters
The court noted that Arizona “makes it very easy to vote.” Voters can vote by mail or in person up to 27 days before the election and on Election Day in their precinct or at a county voting center.
The country is now experiencing efforts in 18 states to limit voting access, while, with less notice, 28 other states have increased it. The war rages.
A New York Times editorial, headlined “The Supreme Court Abandons Voting Rights,” demonized the majority justices, saying without support that they “have given a free pass to state legislatures to discriminate.”
Obviously, the purpose of a court is to determine the law and, also obviously, somebody will dislike any judgment. But opponents like the Times ignored the majority’s citing the good Arizona access provisions. If the decision was political, it was mainly so because the opponents said it was.
In all three of these recent cases, courts have made decisions they knew would draw sharp criticism from those who dislike the result.
Clearly, people can disagree with court decisions. But to attack the courts themselves for those decisions undermines the system of government. Protecting our system may be more important than any single court case.