Sunday, February 14, 2016

Praying for Nino, and Planning for What's Next

This morning in church I prayed for the soul of Antonin Scalia, and asked for him to receive God's mercy. I disagreed with him sharply during his lifetime, and sometimes judged him harshly, which made prayer all the more incumbent on me. Some of my friends have argued with me about this on social media, taking it as some sign of approval or absolution. Let me be very clear: I believe that Scalia is very much in need of mercy. (I have a beloved aunt, a former Sister of St. Joseph, who passed away a few years ago, and I almost never pray for her, because I strongly doubt God needs me to vouch for her.) I believe, I fear, that Scalia has done things that require God's forgiveness.

But on the other hand, Scalia was a human being with a moral self, capable of both good and evil, and I need to recognize his humanity. Nor is it for me to judge his soul. Scalia was subject to some of the temptations -- a sharp tongue, a weakness for partisan conflict, pride in his intellectual abilities -- that I have wrestled with for many years. And my chief grievance against Justice Scalia in the exercise of his office was that he sometimes failed to respect others' humanity as fully as he ought, that he did not render the compassion or mercy that others were owed. But if those were his failings, they will not be mended by aping him. Dehumanizing Nino Scalia and hardening our hearts against him would mean taking on the worst of his failings and perpetuating them.

I was appalled to see people cheering Scalia's death on the internet. I was never going to be sorry the day he left the Court, but I can't rejoice in the way he left it. I was ashamed of many of my fellow liberals. But I was just as appalled to see conservatives playing partisan games within an hour of the sad news.

I can't imagine a sorrier monument to Scalia's "originalist" approach than to openly defy the plain reading of the Constitution. A President of the United States with 11 months left in his term is President of the United States. Apparently, even those basic facts are unacceptable to the current Republican Party, so we're going to spend the rest of the election year in the Thunderdome.

But I think the Republicans, in their current disarray, just Thunderdomed themselves. One result of McConnell and Cruz's open obstructionism is that the Senate elections just got nationalized. Every Republican senator running for election in a swing state can now be painted as an obstructionist for not giving the President's nominee an up-or-down vote. Just choosing to find fault with a particular nominee, the safe and obvious strategy, has been taken off the table because McConnell gave the game away by announcing that Obama had no right to nominate anyone.

(There's a special circle of political hell for Republican senators who are running for re-election in swing states but who haven't had their primary yet, which is to say all of the swing-state Republicans but Kelly Ayotte. Those senators can be attacked on the right unless they commit to NOT approving ANY nominee, and then attacked in the general for being partisan hacks. Mitch McConnell, political genius, just threw his own senators into that circle of hell.)

Meanwhile, Obama is free to nominate a potential justice he genuinely wants to see on the court. If his pick gets nominated, he wins. If the Republicans block his nominee (or a series of his nominees; he has time to nominate at least three), he can make the Republicans look like the hacks they are. Meanwhile, the stalemated Court won't be able to make any precedent without at least one of the liberal judges agreeing. (The sole exception is the odious Fisher v. Texas case, where the conservatives might overturn affirmative action in college admissions of a 4-3 vote because Justice Kagan has recused herself. Chief Justice Roberts has to ask himself if he's willing to do that, and possibly damage the Court's reputation, with only four votes.)

The biggest surprise in this political chaos is that we're surprised. It's been a long time since a Supreme Court Justice passed away in office. And in many ways, our political elite has begun to presume upon modern medicine and extreme longevity. Antonin Scalia was clearly planning to hang on into his eighties. We now expect Supreme Court Justices to hang on into their eighties if they choose, as if it were simply a matter of choice. When the death of a 79-year-old comes as such a drastic surprise, we all need to recalibrate our response to mortality.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

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