John Paul Stevens: 95 & Going Strong

John Paul Stevens

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, a man of many accomplishments, comes across as a man of few regrets. The latter might be summed up in two words: Citizens United. His regrets over that controversial 5-4 decision, handed down just months before he left the Supreme Court, are strong, and many.

Stevens, who turned 95 in April, appeared recently at an event in Washington DC co-sponsored by the Alliance for Justice and George Washington University Law School. Introduced by AFJ President Nan Aron, Stevens was interviewed by Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick and Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart.

Stevens demurred on several issues such as the benefits or evils of social media and citizen journalists: “I’m not a good person to ask about that.” But on most points he was crystal clear.

Re political candidates having “a litmus test” for potential Supreme Court nominees? Even as to Citizens United, “it’s a bad idea. But the (Citizens United) case should be overruled.” Throughout the interview Stevens referred to the case as bad for the country and the future, and damaging to the basic principles of democracy, “which should be ‘one person, one vote’ and not (decisions hinging) on a bunch of money.”

Asked by Capehart why he had changed from the conservative he was considered when first named to the bench to his later identification as a liberal, Stevens said, “I didn’t change, the Court changed.” Every member appointed from 1981-91, he pointed out, was more conservative than his predecessor.Scales of justice

On electoral reform, another issue Stevens sees as imperative, he said “some things can be done at the state level. The right to contribute (to campaigns, etc) should have some geographical boundaries. Excessive photo IDs have never made sense.”

Stevens, in response to a question from Lithwick about “bombast and aggressive, ideological arguments” in the Court, said that “ideology is not good. That’s one reason I am against televising arguments, which would have an adverse impact on the deliberating process. I believe firmly in people knowing the institution, but not if it has an adverse effect on the institution itself.” Possibly because some member might be a camera hog, Lithwick interposed? “Any one of the nine. And I would include myself.”

Talking briefly about interactions among the justices, Stevens – known to have had a close relationship with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia – gave the impression that the Court does indeed function as intended. “I think John Roberts is a very good Chief Justice,” he said. “He executes the duties of Chief Justice well, although I disagree with some of his decisions.”

Stevens recalled stumbling over a few words while giving his dissent in Citizens United. “I said to myself, ‘You’re not as articulate as you were.’ And that’s when I stepped down.”

Fielding questions five years later, the renowned Justice showed no problem articulating his thoughts. Including the need for electoral reform – and the need to overturn Citizens United.

Hobby Lobby, 1 – Women, 0

(This first appeared on Huffington Post)

It is hard not to despair.

A woman entering a clinic for personal healthcare now must wade through potential hordes of obnoxious strangers getting in her face with stuff – often angry stuff, often misinformed and always unrequested. Where is the right to privacy, to lead one’s own life without the interference of obnoxious strangers?

And now, a woman working for Hobby Lobby, or for that matter any other corporation headed by a religious fanatic who believes his employees must submit to his beliefs, can be denied healthcare coverage for the most basic, most personal reasons: the need to control her own body, to make her own reproductive choices and family decisions.

Following the Supreme Court these days is hazardous to one’s health.

But let’s hear it for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ginsburg read the riot act to the five men – surprise, surprise, all of them were men – who dealt this latest blow to the women of America.

Saying that religious freedom demands “accommodation of a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs no matter the impact that accommodation may have on third parties who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith,” Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, is likely to wreak havoc. The havoc is only beginning. And only a small part of it will be the suffering of Hobby Lobby employees. No contraceptive coverage, no abortion coverage, no options, and – because we are not talking about rich people here – no justice.

One wonders. Are mandatory burqas next? Stranger things have happened than corporate CEOs whose religious sensibilities are offended by women’s uncovered heads. There are serious concerns that the ruling could lead to other corporations denying coverage for things that bother other religious groups – blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christians Scientists), psychiatric treatment (Scientologists) for example.

Freedom of religion? Bah, humbug, Ginsburg says in so many words. “(Y)our right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” She might more properly have said, “where the woman’s uterus begins;” because indeed the religion-guarding gentlemen are swinging directly at women’s guts.

Call it what you will – religious freedom, protecting the unborn, freedom of expression, social conservatism – the denial of women’s rights will always, eventually run up against the voices of women who will not be denied.

Thanks, Justice Ginsburg

Wanted children, planned families… Why not?

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

The wanted child, the planned family. Can anybody argue that the wanted child and the planned family are not infinitely better off for everyone: child, family and society in general?

So why are we fighting these battles?

The Supreme Court, for example, is taking up the question of whether Hobby Lobby — which presumably prefers unwanted children and unplanned families — can refuse to provide contraceptive insurance for its employees because doing so would somehow offend (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act uses the word “burden”) the religion of its corporate soul. Assuming corporations have a soul, which may or may not be true for Hobby Lobby — this is subject to individual opinion. The RFRA is, of course, also about people, but the Court has already hopelessly blurred the line between people and corporations.

This writer is not a Supreme Court judge, which most U.S. citizens would deem a good thing. But can we think this through? Hobby Lobby goes to a church that thinks sex should occur strictly for purposes of procreation, and conception should therefore never be prohibited. Never mind any Hobby Lobbyists who may have planned their own families; Hobby Lobby still finds it offensive that he should be required to help an employee plan his or her own family. Excuse me?

In particular, Hobby Lobby does not want poor people to plan their families. People of means (and Hobby Lobby is definitely a corporate person of means) have plenty of access to contraceptives enabling them to plan their families. Poor people could use a little help. According to a report recently completed by the Guttmacher Institute (full disclosure, this writer supports the Guttmacher Institute; Hobby Lobby does not), almost nine million disadvantaged women every year get help protecting their health and planning their families through the successful U.S. family planning effort. This effort — which includes funding for contraceptives — substantially reduces the rates of unintended pregnancy. In the process it saves us taxpayers some $10 billion per year.

Some of the details of the Guttmacher report, excerpted below, are worth noting:

• Nearly nine million women receive publicly funded family planning services each year. Three-quarters of these women (6.7 million) received this care from safety-net health centers and about 2.2 million from private physicians. Of these nine million women, 4.7 million obtained care from a health center that receives some funding through Title X.

• Publicly supported contraceptive care enables women to avoid 2.2 million unintended pregnancies each year; absent these services, U.S. rates of unintended pregnancy, unplanned birth and abortion would be two-thirds higher than they are.

• Underscoring the critical role these safety-net providers play in women’s lives, six in 10 women receiving contraceptive care at a health center consider that provider their usual source of care. For four in 10 women who visit a reproductive health-focused health center despite having other options, that provider is their only source of medical care throughout the year.

• Every public dollar invested in helping women avoid pregnancies they did not want to have saves $5.68 in Medicaid expenditures that otherwise would have gone to pregnancy-related care; in 2010, that amounted to a net government savings of $10.5 billion. Safety-net providers that receive some funding from Title X accounted for $5.3 billion of those net public savings.

Dollars saved, wanted children, planned families, individual rights and everything else aside, Hobby Lobby insists that provision of contraceptive coverage infringes upon its religious rights.

It is encouraging to note, though, that 47 religious organizations, through their leaders, have weighed in on the side of wanted children and planned families. They are Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others.

This Presbyterian is proud to join them.

Devious ways to cancel rights

A Supreme Court decision in 1973 affirmed the right of women in the U.S. to make their own choices about reproduction, including the choice of having an abortion.

But oh well, never mind.

Those who oppose this constitutional right have chosen to negate it by going around the law: forcing clinics to close, layering restrictions, inserting unnecessary road-blocks, passing medically inappropriate or erroneous state laws, denying access to women who might want to exercise their right. So the right remains, but the justice is gone. If a woman has money and resources she may still choose to have an abortion. But if she’s poor, or without power, in well over half of the country she effectively is forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy no matter what. Or to try something that can leave her sick, maimed or dead.

“I think it is more difficult to get an abortion in the country today,” said Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, in one of the better understatements of the year so far. To the members of this organization, this is very good news.

To poor, suffering, desperate women unable to exercise their own right — life and liberty included — the news is increasingly bad.

But it’s another group that’s getting me down. The New York Times reported in a recent story that Americans United for Life sees this flood of new laws as “life-affirming legislation designed to protect women from the harms inherent in abortion.”

THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH PROTECTING WOMEN. This has strictly to do with elevating the right of zygotes and fetuses above and beyond the right of women. HARM IS NOT INHERENT IN ABORTION. (It’s very hard not to scream.) Harm is inherent in the denial of women’s right to control their own bodies. Can these good folks not learn ANYTHING from history? Millions of women were maimed, sickened, left sterile — or dead when abortion was illegal. It will happen again. It’s already happening in much of the country.

Meanwhile, about that constitutional right to choose? Oh, well, never mind…

Sonia Sotomayor gets my vote

English: Sonia Sotomayor, U.S. Supreme Court j...
English: Sonia Sotomayor, U.S. Supreme Court justice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am definitely voting for Sotomayor. Oh, wait, she’s not running for anything. That’s a pity.

A little late — since it’s already got 931 reader reviews on Amazon — I just got around to reading My Beloved World. it is a tale told incredibly well, with kindness, humor and self-analysis so clear and so unpretentious it must fill every one of her Jesuit instructors with pride and joy. It certainly fills the reader with joy. Sotomayor makes you proud to be on the same planet.

With almost everyone and every institution in Washington too painful to watch these days, at least the justices of the Supreme Court (with the notable exception of Clarence Thomas) seem to be working. Unfortunately, half of them are working in directions — think Citizens United — that are downright scary, but we have to hope that justice will prevail among the justices.

Anti-choice forces are racking up laws so blatantly unconstitutional there’s no doubt where they want to wind up: back before the Supreme Court in hopes of overturning Roe v Wade. And THAT’s scary. Because they clearly expect to win, and to send American women straight back to the dark ages.

I have a sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach about that prospect. I have no idea how any of the justices would vote. But because she radiates warmth and compassion and the brilliance of a gentle intellect, my vote would go to Sotomayor.

Do yourself a favor: pick up a copy of My Beloved World.

Justice O’Connor still has opinions

Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O’Connor (Photo credit: kyle tsui)

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, speaking at a sold-out event in San Francisco October 22, aimed the bulk of her remarks at the school children and law students in the balconies:  study hard, keep your eyes and ears open, and spend a lot of time at iCivics.

Founded by O’Connor in 2009, iCivics is designed “to reverse Americans’ declining civic knowledge and participation” and keep democracy secure by educating and enlightening the next generation, and the groundbreaking justice means to get this done.

In addition to plugging what is clearly her primary passion, O’Connor got around to a few other issues dear to her heart, such as states that elect their judges to federal courts. “Which means they have to campaign,” she noted. “Campaigns cost money. Guess who contributes campaign money? The lawyers who will appear before those judges.” Bad idea. Admitting that California is one of those states, moderator Mary Bitterman said, “I guess we should look into that.” “Yes, you should,” O’Connor shot back.

Dozens of audience questions concerned the Supreme Court, past (Citizens United,) present and future. Could she envision an all-female court some day? “Certainly.” But for the most part she declined to comment on decisions, or speculate on the future as it relates to details like the Republican commitment to overturning Roe v Wade.

So this report can only direct readers to iCivics, a fine spot indeed. Games will teach you about juries, voting, balance of power — citizenship. It’s designed for students of all ages, with special pages for teachers, and it’s perfectly OK for adults, O’Connor remarked, “if you’re a dum dum.” Whereupon I visited the site, played a couple of games, learned a little more about democracy.

Retired, perhaps, but Justice O’Connor is in no way retiring. May she live long and prosper.

On showing up at the polls

After all these decades, all these elections — and I’ve never missed one — I mailed in my absentee ballot for the first time ever a few days ago. It leaves a lot to be desired.

Not that voting absentee isn’t perfectly respectable, or was a capricious decision. This post is being written from the friendly skies of Virgin America en route to Manhattan, which would make getting to the polls in San Francisco tomorrow somewhat of a challenge. But absentee is just not the same.

Showing up at the polls makes a statement: I took all this trouble to come say hello, sign my name, stand in the little booth, schmooze with the neighbors and collect my bright red I VOTED sticker. With absentee you just drop the envelope in the mail. And don’t even get a sticker.

Politics being the messy, frustrating mess it currently is, I know people who are staying home and not voting any direction. Doesn’t seem wise to me. Given the critical issues ahead (Iran, another war? Horrors.  New Supreme Court nominees who’ll send reproductive rights back to the dark ages? Could we please revisit the Citizens United decision?….) I’m hoping staying home doesn’t catch on, unless you’re in favor of war and Citizens United and oppose women’s rights.

I’m looking forward to a stay in Manhattan, beginning just before voting day. But I’m going to miss walking around with an I VOTED sticker on.