Bob Schwartz

Tag: Supreme Court

Mark Judge and the Theology of Whistleblowing

Mark Judge has come up frequently in the matter of Brett Kavanaugh. Judge was a high school buddy of Kavanaugh’s, and has chronicled his own wild years as a teenage alcoholic. The question Judge can answer—but so far won’t—is whether Kavanagugh was mostly a “choir boy”, as Kavanaugh swears he was, or whether together they engaged in drunken and sometimes aggressive behavior.

Kavanaugh doesn’t want an FBI investigation, Trump will not order one, and the Senate Judiciary Committee did not subpoena Judge. At this point, the only way Judge will speak out is voluntarily. And he has made clear that he does not want to be involved, that he has no memory of the particular incident involving Christine Blasey Ford, and that given his health and his recovery from long-time alcoholism, his public involvement would be detrimental.

This is all to introduce a different light on the matter. Judge’s memoirs of his life and recovery, including a high school depiction of the thinly disguised “Bart O’Kavanagh”, have gotten the most attention. But Judge, a devout Catholic, has also written frequently about the Church and about the need for more theological education.

The involvement of the Church in the Kavanaugh nomination has been pretty straightforward. It is believed that he will help in advancing constitutional limits on or even banning of abortion, and so he is favored. The influential magazine America: The Jesuit Review enthusiastically endorsed him in July. Yet after yesterday’s hearings, where it became apparent to some that Kavanaugh may have been lying about the incident with Ms. Ford, America rescinded its endorsement:

The Editors: It is time for the Kavanaugh nomination to be withdrawn

While we previously endorsed the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh on the basis of his legal credentials and his reputation as a committed textualist, it is now clear that the nomination should be withdrawn….Judge Kavanaugh continues to enjoy a legal presumption of innocence, but the standard for a nominee to the Supreme Court is far higher; there is no presumption of confirmability….We continue to support the nomination of judges according to such principles—but Judge Kavanaugh is not the only such nominee available. For the good of the country and the future credibility of the Supreme Court in a world that is finally learning to take reports of harassment, assault and abuse seriously, it is time to find a nominee whose confirmation will not repudiate that lesson.

This is not, however, about the Catholic position on Kavanaugh. It is about whistleblowing. Mark Judge is in the position of a whistleblower. As a general matter of ethics and theology, that is a topic that has been widely discussed by Catholic theologians and philosophers. And as a specific topic, the Church is painfully familiar with keeping secrets (yes, sexual secrets) and the theology of handling those who might open a pathway to the painful truth.

Mark Judge has no doubt sought faithful guidance on how to proceed. That religious direction may be supplanted by legal process: it is almost certain that in a Democratic Congress, the Kavanaugh matter will be pursued in hearings, even as Kavanaugh sits on the Court. That will mean a subpoena for Judge.

Duty to yourself. Duty to others, especially the suffering. Duty to your faith. Duty to the truth. As a thoughtful Catholic Mark Judge knows, as every thoughtful person of faith knows, there are way more questions than answers.

Pope Francis, Kim Davis and Caesar

Caesar Coin

Pope Francis tried very hard in his U.S. visit to watch the line between moral guidance that has political effect and politics itself. He appears, maybe unwittingly, to have crossed the line. In a big way.

His visit with Kim Davis belies a misunderstanding of who she is and what she represents. It’s not that freedom of religious conscience is not an important issue. It’s that Kim Davis is the wrong poster person.

It appears from the context that he may have seen her in the line of great conscientious objectors. He reportedly thanked her for her courage and told her to be strong.

Kim Davis does have a religious conscience. And she does object to authorizing same-sex marriages. But there are two problems.

First, unlike true conscientious objectors, she doesn’t really want to suffer for her beliefs. Civil disobedients and conscientious objectors expect to be punished; sometimes they welcome it. But Kim Davis wants to have it both ways. Martin Luther King Jr. did not write in his letter from a Birmingham jail: For God’s sake, let me out of here. As far as we know, Kim Davis didn’t write any letters from her jail, at least not ones that will be in literary anthologies for the next fifty years.

The second problem is that her objection, at its heart, is that the Constitution and the Supreme Court are wrong, and that’s why she gets to keep her job and perform her duties as she sees fit. As a public servant, she is either explicitly by oath or implicitly by understanding sworn to uphold the Constitution. If she chooses not to, she has no privilege to hold that job, nor is she privileged to be free of sanction. That’s it.

Pope Francis, who I have expressed admiration for, may not understand that or the background of the Kim Davis saga. In that event, he should have followed the advice of Jesus in these situations:

‘Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’

Matthew 22:17-21 (NRSV)

Hobby Lobby and Peyote


Peyote is at the heart of today’s Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case.

Hobby Lobby does not sell peyote. When Hobby Lobby attends church, its religious practices don’t include eating peyote. Its Christian beliefs do include opposition to certain forms of contraception, and therefore it opposed having to provide health insurance under ACA that includes such contraception.

Hobby Lobby’s objections reached the Supreme Court. In today’s 5-4 decision, the Court found that the entity that is Hobby Lobby has a claim to religious freedom from that requirement, grounded in the First Amendment and in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). And that is where peyote comes in.

This begins with the case of Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon vs. Smith (1990). Two employees of the State of Oregon were members of the Native American Church, and ingested peyote as a sacrament. They failed a drug test and were fired. The Supreme Court found that despite their claim of religious freedom, Oregon had the right to terminate them.

In response to this and other decisions, activists from the left and right, religiously and politically, came together to push for a legislative remedy. How universal was support for a fix? The House vote for RFRA was unanimous, the Senate 97-3, and President Clinton signed it.

More than twenty years later, what hath God and Congress and the Court wrought? Characterizing this new allowance for religious exceptions to laws as narrow seems wishful, hopeful, or just plain wrongheaded. There will be more attempts than before to see just how big this hole is and what sort of company policy vehicle can be driven through it on the basis of religious freedom.

Quite possibly, the next big test will be to see exactly what closely held companies that have religious objections will be permitted to do about homosexual employees. We have no federal law on employment discrimination against gay people, and in a country where we can’t even pass equal-pay for equal-work for women legislation, that isn’t likely any time soon.

God apparently doesn’t endorse IUDs but approves of peyote. His judgment on Hobby Lobby and the Supreme Court is still out.

Aereo: Agreeing with Justice Scalia


It doesn’t happen often that I agree with Justice Antonin Scalia. On the law or much else.

But his dissent in today’s Supreme Court decision in ABC v. Aereo is pretty good and pretty right. By 6-3, the Court decided to allow Aereo to be subject to violation of copyright law.

As explained in an earlier post at the time of oral arguments, Aereo has devised a complex tech scheme by which it captures over-the-air-broadcasts at the request of subscribers, using tiny antennas that subscribers essentially time-share, and then allows subscribers to watch those broadcasts online.

In the opinion, the majority agreed with the networks, finding that this is just a too-clever-by-half way of getting around copyright law and avoiding paying retransmission fees, as cable companies are required to do. Justice Scalia found the reasoning and judgment of the majority deficient in many ways, and his dissent is well worth reading.

Among the points, he notes that exploiting loopholes is not illegitimate, and is in fact one of the things that lawyers are good at and are supposed to do. Justice Scalia does not necessarily think that Aereo should go without liability or responsibility, but that trying to make the law fit to reach a desirable result is not the way to get there. If the law doesn’t fit the technology, Congress is charged with and capable of fixing it. (Note that this is the connection between his strict constructionism and his very progressive position in this particular case.)

There was a lot of apocalyptic talk at oral arguments (Aereo would destroy broadcasting as we know it), and there is apocalyptic talk today (the somewhat fuzzy majority opinion leaves all sorts of cloud-based services under legal suspicion). The earlier post repeated the maxim: hard cases make bad law. This is a hard case, and whether the law is bad or not, it sure is an irresolute path to the future. About that, Justice Scalia is right.

The Aereo Case and Media Reality


Today the Supreme Court hears arguments in the case of ABC, et al. v. Aereo. Some characterize it as the most important media case in decades, one which could destroy broadcasting as we know it.

That is both overstated and understated. The big broadcasters who claim this is the apocalypse won’t go out of business; they will continue, though they might make a little less money or have to work a little harder for it. On the other hand, nothing less than the nature of modern reality is being considered, which is what makes the case so interesting and ultimately so hard to decide.

In a nutshell, this is what Aereo does:

Aereo sets up lots of tiny (thumbnail) antennas in your locality.

The antennas pick up the same over-the-air (OTR) TV signals you would if you had an antenna at your home (but you probably don’t).

You subscribe to Aereo for as little as $8 a month.

When you want to watch something from the stations that are on the air in your locality, Aereo assigns you an antenna, collects and records the signal from that antenna in its cloud, and streams that signal the way you want to the device you want, now or later.

The question is whether Aereo is retransmitting copyrighted content to subscribers, cleverly skirting retransmission fees that cable systems and others must pay, which would be stealing. Or whether Aereo is simply enabling you to do something you are legally entitled to do: receive OTR TV and then watch it, record it, or redistribute it to your own devices for your own personal use.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeal decided in favor of Aereo, with a vigorous dissent and with other Circuit Courts disagreeing, and now the Supreme Court will decide. If you read the briefs you can get an idea of the difficulty and the possible impacts.

One can say, as the big broadcasters do, that Aereo may be trying to fit through a loophole in the law, but that isn’t quite right. Aereo is taking advantage of a reality so profoundly new and so newly understood that every medium and every media business is just barely beginning to come to grips.

When you reduce things to information and can move that information around infinitely and frictionlessly and at relatively low cost, the processes and regulations meant to handle grosser things are of limited value.

First a book was a thing made of paper, then there was a copier which could copy pages on paper, then there was a scanner that could turn paper pages into digital images and, with OCR, characters, then there were entire books that never had anything to do with paper, ever, just pure arranged information. The same goes, with slightly different details, for every medium. The solution for the producers who wanted to control things (often with legitimate interests, such as creators being compensated), was to put the information in some kind of box, which to some looked like an information jail. It was and is this simple: once it gets out of the box, catching it and catching up with it is quite a chore. Because, as Stewart Brand famously said, information wants to be free.

If you had to characterize the actors in this case as good guys or bad guys, it does look like ossified old school versus new school, mega-corporations versus insurgents, or as one of the briefs says, David versus Goliath. Any way you put it though, and wherever your opinion lies, this is a hard case, and the maxim is that hard cases make bad law. In this case, bad law would mean that even if progressive principles are maintained, more looking forward than back, we are still in an astonishing mess when it comes to dealing with all this. One case at a time won’t do, and the expectation that Congress will seize the reins and lead us boldly into an enlightened future on digital intellectual property is, at least for the moment, not in the cards or the cloud.

McCutcheon: Is This the Electoral Apocalypse? (Maybe Not)


Six months ago I wrote a post called The Man Who Could Kill Democracy about the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. McCutcheon was asking the Supreme Court, on free speech grounds, to lift federal limits on aggregate campaign contributions. By a 5-4 decision, the Court today agreed.

In that post I wrote:

The First Amendment is central to American democracy, but it has never been absolute. It could be of course, and we would be free to destroy the reputations of others, or talk freely about overthrowing the government, or republish the words of others without penalty, or yell fire in that crowded theater. Instead, as an exercise in social priorities, we argue about balance, though sometimes the argument for the good of the many and “democracy” is cover for what’s good for me and mine.

Today’s decision finds that limits on what an individual can give to a single candidate is allowable under the First Amendment as a way to prevent corruption (that is, you shouldn’t massively buy a single election on a quid pro quo, one hand washing the other basis). But restrictions on what an individual may give in aggregate offends the First Amendment (that is, you are free to try to buy as many elections as your wealth allows).

The majority opinion of Justice Roberts was joined in by Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Alito; Justice Thomas concurred, but believes that all limits on campaign finance are impermissible under the First Amendment. Justice Breyer filed a dissent, in which Justices Ginzburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined.

Justice Breyer writes in his dissent:

Today a majority of the Court overrules this holding. It is wrong to do so. Its conclusion rests upon its own, not a record-based, view of the facts. Its legal analysis is faulty: It misconstrues the nature of the competing constitutional interests at stake. It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institutions. It creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign. Taken together with Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U. S. 310 (2010), today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.

So is this it, the electoral apocalypse? In the earlier post before the decision I wrote:

Get smart.

Without casting aspersions too wide, it does seem that a number of Americans really don’t do their homework on public issues. As far as voting, our abysmal turnout numbers tell the tale. But if Americans did do their homework and did vote, we really could have a pragmatic, centrist, reasonable and successful country—instead of an extremist-obstructed one based more on blustery ideology and vaguely-veiled self-interest. We can hope.

That’s still it. If we have an aware, informed, moral, discerning electorate that votes, there is hope that in spite of McCutcheon (and Citizens United and whatever other shoes the Supreme Court has yet to drop), we can maintain what Justice Breyer calls “democratic legitimacy.” Without that, despite what Imagine Dragons sing, the apocalypse may not be followed by a new age, but by some back to the future America of the overpowered and the underpowered.

If you believe that America has a problem in any of those areas—awareness, information, morality, discernment, voting—then do whatever you can. Don’t blame nice Mr. McCutcheon, or nice Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Alito, and Thomas (even if they are wrong). And if you are hand-wringing, which is admittedly hard to avoid, do it only for a moment; it is unattractive and useless. Then get busy.

The Torah and the Supreme Court: Tazria and Scalia

Women of the Supreme Court

This week the portion of the Torah read in Jewish communities is Tazria (Leviticus 12:1–13:59). This week the Supreme Court heard arguments in the widely reported Hobby Lobby case. There is a significant but not obvious connection between the two.

Leviticus is the one of the Five Books of Moses that has the least action and the most rules. Lots of rules about the behavior of the Jewish people. In the thousands of years since those rules flowed into the processes of cultural and social oral tradition, and in the thousands of years since those traditions were set down in writing, different Jewish people and communities have determined which to honor and which to ignore. Those decisions are based on what exactly one thinks these rules are: God-given and inviolable, or ancient and subject to temporizing to suit modern philosophy and life. We should not wear clothing made from two different fabrics, Leviticus says. Non-literal interpretations of this have been conceived for centuries, but it says what it says, or rather, God says what God says. But what’s so wrong about a wrinkle-free, 60/40 cotton-poly blend shirt?

The Tazria portion begins:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days: she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed. If she bears a female, she shall be unclean two weeks as during her menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days.

On the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, she shall bring to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it before the Lord and make expiation on her behalf; she shall then be clean from her flow of blood. Such are the rituals concerning her who bears a child, male or female. If, however, her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. The priest shall make expiation on her behalf, and she shall be clean.

 The attitude toward and treatment of this passage in a modern context ranges widely, depending on belief sets. Some express wholesale acceptance and obedience (except for the sheep and bird sacrifice). Some faithfully regard it as God’s word, but pass it through interpretive filters suitable for the times. Some see it as a reflection of ancient people making sense of the mysteries of God and life.

One of those mysteries, of course, is women. Especially for men. Especially for the strange and foreign ways that women “work”. No matter your ideology, no matter how much the passage is accepted or spun, it is not hard to read meaning. Women are different. Some of that difference renders them unclean, even if that part is functionally essential (e.g., sex, birth). That uncleanness can be fixed, but it will cost you (e.g., lambs, pigeons).

The Hobby Lobby cases (Kathleen Sibelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services v. Hobby Lobby; Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius) concern the interaction of two federal laws: The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which aims to protect Americans from intrusion on their religious lives, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which, among other things, requires employers to offer health insurance that includes coverage for contraception. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the religious right of companies such as Hobby Lobby, which has Christian objections to providing that coverage, overcomes the particular requirement of the ACA.

The big legal issues are complex and significant. One arises every time religion is in the mix: we protect religion in this country, both in its expression and establishment, but in a nominally secular country, that is bound to clash with civil rights that may contravene religious belief. This isn’t easy to resolve, but resolve it we do. If, for example, your religion happens to believe that people of color are lesser human beings, and you are “commanded” to treat them accordingly, you still cannot follow that faith in the public square or the marketplace.

The other big legal issue is whether a company such as Hobby Lobby is a “person” able to enjoy religious liberties in the first place. We’ve seen this come up before and will again. Citizens United is the most recent and famous case deciding that enterprises may enjoy free speech, First Amendment rights, just as you do. Then there is Mitt Romney, former presidential candidate, who will forever be identified with his own legal interpretation of the issue: “Corporations are people, my friend.”

Besides these, the Hobby Lobby case is widely viewed as being about women, because practically it is. The ACA requirement that health insurance include contraceptives for women is a practically and realistically sound policy. A large majority of women use contraceptives, either for health reasons or, more frequently, to prevent conceiving as a result of sex. Preventing conception has a number of advantages, including avoiding unwanted or unplanned pregnancies. An advantage of this is that women do have sex, and do want to avoid pregnancy. It’s that basic. And then there’s this: many of those women who want to prevent conception are having sex with men.

The transcript of oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case shows, as usual, a deeply divided court. Beyond the interesting central arguments concerning religious freedom and the personhood of corporations, there is a subtle subtext (some might say not so subtle). To a certain extent, the law, and arguments about it, are clinical. To the greatest extent possible, questions about impact are subservient to questions about the law itself: what it says, what was intended, how it works with other laws and with the Constitution. The rule of law prevails over the rule of people, and if the impact is unfair or disproportionate but still constitutional and legal, well, change the law.

But that has never been, will never be, and can never be how it works. Everyone—judges, lawyers, litigants, citizens—comes to the table with histories, psyches, lives, all the riches and trash we can carry. That’s how a case that seems about one thing can be, at least in small part, about another. That’s how the Hobby Lobby case is about women, something the three women on the Supreme Court without question get, something the six men may or may not.

Do read the transcript of the argument and maybe a few of the almost one hundred appellate briefs filed in the cases. In the arguments, you won’t find any express misunderstanding of the lives and impact of the case on women, though you may if you read between the lines. The briefs, which come from just about every corner of American society and politics, are a little clearer on how this is about women in ways that are not just incidental.

This brings us back to Tazria. It is easy to dismiss the passage as archaic, particularly for those who have found ways to work through or around it. Similarly, you may consider the Hobby Lobby case one about important and respectable religious and legal doctrines, and it is.

It can’t be said often enough: Men don’t get it and they can’t. They don’t know what it’s like to menstruate or be capable of bearing children or of having children. They don’t know what’s it like to be treated as unclean because of all of that, and then to be hypocritically treated as enjoyable and useful for those very same reasons. They don’t know how it feels to have some very simple means of adjusting all that, and then to have those means treated as something both profound and trivial, but not important.

Men don’t know, even if they are at the pinnacle, writing scripture or dispensing justice. So pleading ignorance, a little humility, a little learning, and a little compassion might be in order.

The Man Who Could Kill Democracy

McCutcheon v FEC

Today the Supreme Court hears arguments in the case of McCutcheon and Republican National Committee v. Federal Election Commission, an attack on the constitutionality of limits on individual contributions to federal elections. Just as the Court found in Citizens United that corporations have a First Amendment right to unlimited campaign contributions, so Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon would have that extended to people (since, as Mitt Romney pointed out, corporations are people too, ergo, people are corporations—at least for election money).

Mr. McCutcheon seems to be a decent and hardworking person, a loyal American, and he is of course entitled not only to his opinion but to his pursuit of it in the courts. But Mr. McCutcheon could conceivably be known as the man who killed American democracy, or at least the one nominally identified with its murder. Yes, he would have the heirs to Abraham Lincoln as his accomplices or co-conspirators, but his fingerprints would be on the weapon.

Is that hyperbole? Before Citizens United, it might have seemed so. But beyond theory, we now have proof that Big Money has a distorting effect on Big Democracy. A contortionate, twisted beyond recognition effect. There is reason to believe that if individual limits are lifted, the effect might go beyond injury to mortal blow.

You can read the submitted briefs here. After the arguments, you can listen to them here.

The questions presented on appeal are these:

Federal law imposes two types of limits on individual political contributions. Base limits restrict the amount an individual may contribute to a candidate committee ($2,500 per election), a national-party committee ($30,800 per calendar year), a state, local, and district party committee ($10,000 per calendar year (combined limit)), and a political-action committee (“PAC”) ($5,000 per calendar year). 2 U.S.C. 441a(a)(1) (current limits provided). Biennial limits restrict the aggregate amount an individual may contribute biennially as follows: $46,200 to candidate committees; $70,800 to all other committees, of which no more than $46,200 may go to non-national-party committees (e.g., state parties and PACs). 2 U.S.C. 441a(a)(3) (current limits provided) (see Appendix at 20a (text of statute)). Appellants present five questions:

1. Whether the biennial limit on contributions to non-candidate committees, 2 U.S.C. 441a(a)(3)(B), is unconstitutional for lacking a constitutionally cognizable interest as applied to contributions to national-party committees.

2. Whether the biennial limits on contributions to non-candidate committees, 2 U.S.C. 441a(a)(3)(B), are unconstitutional facially for lacking a constitutionally cognizable interest.

3. Whether the biennial limits on contributions to non-candidate committees are unconstitutionally too low, as applied and facially.

4. Whether the biennial limit on contributions to candidate committees, 2 U.S. C. 441a(a)(3)(A), is unconstitutional for lacking a constitutionally cognizable interest.

5. Whether the biennial limit on contributions to candidate committees, 2 U.S.C. 441a(a)(3)(A), is unconstitutionally too low.

Without going into the arguments so well-developed in the written briefs, and in the oral arguments today, one point should be stressed. The First Amendment is central to American democracy, but it has never been absolute. It could be of course, and we would be free to destroy the reputations of others, or talk freely about overthrowing the government, or republish the words of others without penalty, or yell fire in that crowded theater. Instead, as an exercise in social priorities, we argue about balance, though sometimes the argument for the good of the many and “democracy” is cover for what’s good for me and mine.

If the Court agrees that both the base limits (the per election money) and the aggregate limits (cumulative over two years) are unconstitutional on their face, anyone with money can attempt to influence public opinion and the action of public officials to the full extent that money can. And it can. Some say that this would simply level the playing field—the same way that everybody having guns would level the playing field, insuring that only the bad guys would get shot. Funny how the First and Second Amendments can work so well together.

In the worst case, where we may be speaking about McCutcheon as we do about Citizens United, only more so, there is still an answer. Simple but not easy:

Get smart.

Without casting aspersions too wide, it does seem that a number of Americans really don’t do their homework on public issues. As far as voting, our abysmal turnout numbers tell the tale. But if Americans did do their homework and did vote, we really could have a pragmatic, centrist, reasonable and successful country—instead of an extremist-obstructed one based more on blustery ideology and vaguely-veiled self-interest. We can hope.

In Advance of the Marriage Equality Decisions


It appears it may be only a few minutes before the Supreme Court releases its opinions in the marriage equality cases, California Proposition 8 and DOMA. As always, when it does happen, please read the opinions yourselves, and don’t just take anybody’s word for what they say or mean.

Meanwhile, some are bound to be disappointed because the decisions don’t go far enough, if they seem to go anywhere at all. So here is a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. so familiar that we may have stopped actually hearing it. Listen and believe.

I have not lost faith. I’m not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven’t lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

DNA and the Supreme Court Reading Program

DNA Court
Today’s Supreme Court decision on the patentability of genetic material, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc.  is another example of just how informative and fun these opinions can be, as opposed to just hearing the media summaries. This leads to a suggestion for a Supreme Court Reading Program.

Earlier posts have covered the value—in knowledge and entertainment—of reading current Supreme Court opinions, even if you are not a lawyer. This also includes reading the briefs in support of various positions, from a range of people and organizations. When the marriage equality cases were argued back in March, a post was devoted to The Briefs on Marriage Equality.

In this complex and significant gene case, the unanimous opinion of the Court (Justice Scalia concurred in a very short comment of his own) is that particular genetic material that isolated and identified (here, the site of mutations leading to breast and ovarian cancer) is not patentable, but that a new synthesized version of that same material, with the deletion of some parts, is.

Among the things that makes the opinion so interesting is its cogent explanation of a technical area. Genetics isn’t easy, and the opinion is really an understandable primer on a difficult topic.

Even more interesting are the array of briefs submitted in the case. Along with companies that want to be able to hold lucrative proprietary interest in genes, there are scientists and health care advocates who want nothing to stand in the way of free and open development and application. (The Humane Genome Project, for example, from the first offered all the work on the mapping the human genome to humanity.) Lawyers and intellectual property activists also chimed in, with intense interest in how patent law is a mess in these hyper-advancing times, having fallen so far behind the realities of digital and bio innovation. Also interesting is a brief from the Southern Baptist Convention, which taken from their church perspective makes a pretty good argument that, to put it bluntly, you can’t patent God.

So when you hear mention of an interesting Supreme Court case, either when it is argued or decided, step away from the media reports, even when those are reliable from experts you trust. Instead, visit the Supreme Court site to read or download the opinion (the opinion is published on the site almost immediately). Then visit the American Bar Association site that collects all the amicus briefs for each case that is argued. There will be a lot of those briefs—more than a hundred in the case of marriage equality—so you will want to pick and choose. Sometimes the name of the person or organization submitting the brief will catch your interest, just by who or what they are.

That certainly applies to the gene patent case. There among the many briefs is one identified as Brief for James D. Watson, Ph.D. in Support of Neither Party. Just in case the name isn’t familiar, James Watson, Ph.D. is the co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, for which he and Frances Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1963. Even if he wasn’t one of the most important scientists in history, his delightful and erudite 26-page brief would be worth reading. It’s just one more example of how a Supreme Court Reading Program can be an enlightening and surprising addition to whatever else you’re currently paying attention to.