Archive for April, 2009

The men behind the men

Presidents and leaders around the world are usually people with strong personalities who are able to push certain policies among politicians and justify them to the public.

But often it is the men (or women) behind these leaders that determine the direction in which to go. It also often happens that key advisors during the electoral campaign gain in popularity and are seen as indispensable to bring forth that same message they had somehow created.

It has happened to Bill Clinton, who awarded Tony Coehlo key jobs when it came to decide how the Democratic Party would go through crucial elections; George W. Bush, who rewarded Karl Rove’s 2004 aggressive electoral campaign with a position as Deputy Chief of Staff, and it’s just a matter of time before we see who moves the puppets inside Barack Obama’s White House.

Right now, it seems like there are especially two men behind the scenes who can force the agenda more than others: David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. Obama’s current chief of staff has maintained a rather liberal approach on social issues, while maintaining a more conservative foreign policy, especially in regards to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Axelrod, on the other hand, is someone who has often worked through his consulting firm for big corporations in the past. That is why a helping hand from the Obama administration towards these big interest groups might not come as such a big surprise.

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How much sense does it make, in today’s globalized world, to be a strenuous nationalist in judicial matters? Not much, if you ask me.

In a recent article published by Newsweek, Stuart Taylor Jr. and Evan Thomas were somewhat critical of Harold Hongju Koh and how his probable confirmation as top legal adviser to the State Department “could erode American democracy and sovereignty.”

Let me start off by saying that the article’s authors do no justice to Koh by citing Edward Whelan, the head of a conservative Washington policy group named Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Koh is “all about depriving American citizens of their powers of representative government by selectively imposing on them the favored policies of Europe’s leftist elites,” said Whelan.

The problem with this quote? It is left out to hang, without a response from another voice.

Supreme Court Anthony Kennedy has been influenced by European law and jurisprudence by spending many summers in Vienna, where he would talk with famous international judges and lawyers. Does that mean he selectively chooses to apply European standards to American law? I doubt it.

The world that is being shaped today is so interconnected it is hard to remain isolated. Instead of trying to fight and resist this process of internationalization, judges and lawyers should take the time to discuss, analyze and exchange views between different judicial cultures.

The result can easily be a positive one, for it is only through the combination and mixture of ideas that great results can be obtained. Ideas would travel around the world and a new global jurisprudence might accompany the global society that is being created.

An New York Times article published on April 12 tried to evaluate if age is an important factor in determining whether a Supreme Court Justice should retire.

The article’s author, Duke Law School Professor Paul D. Carrington, expressed his preference for a system – similar to the one in Great Britain – that would impose an age limit to Supreme Court Justices. The elevated average age of today’s Court is 69, and Carrington believes that this is one of the factors for the rather low number of cases heard every year. (about 75)

I believe Carrington is wrong in two separate instances: First of all, an age limit might cause more harm than good. The knowledge of a term coming to an end may bring some to speed up their decisions in order to finish many delayed works and to push harder for a proper agenda.

This problem is directly tied with the second issue that Carrington brings up and criticizes: The limited number of cases heard by the Justices each year. To invert this trend, the Justices would have to accept more cases every year and deliberate much quicker. Unfortunately, speedy processes frequently lead to poor decisions, such as in the case of Bush v. Gore right after the election of 2000.

Speed is a trend of today’s world that should not be forced on judicial or legislative branches. A newly-elected president, for example, is justly scrutinized from the moment he or she starts his or her term, but the expectations sometimes seem to be too high. Barack Obama, just like Franklin Roosevelt after his first election, has an economic plan that is being pushed forward, but we as a society want to see immediate results.

We live in a time where gratification needs to be instantaneous and decisions are made without meditation. Therefore, the success of a social-network such as Twitter must not come as a surprise. Twitter is the perfect platform on which we can share random thoughts with breath-taking speed.

An interesting study conducted by scientists at the University of South California shows that the urge to “tweet” or to update statuses on Facebook or LinkedIn could cause “potentially negative consequences” on our thought processes and evaluation of feelings.

The key word here is time. Time and patience is what has always characterized the Justices’ modus operandi. Therefore, to put pressure on the Justices by imposing age limits or a minimum of cases to be heard each year might end up hurting the delicate balance of wisdom that has always lived inside the Supreme Court Building.

It is of some comfort to know that a thorough discussion takes place every time a controversial law or judicial case is brought to the Supreme Court’s attention. Nevertheless, the political composition of the Court, due to the fact that the president of the United States nominates every justice, constantly reminds everyone that a certain amount of influence and pressure can be put on the justices by the political world.
To reduce the Court to a battleground between Republicans and Democrats would be simplistic and untrue. In his book, “The Nine,” Jeffrey Toobin clearly demonstrates how justices that were elected by Republican presidents turned out to be more liberal, and vice versa. Even when the Court would have an overwhelming majority of judges appointed by Republican presidents, the Court still ruled on issues such as Roe V Wade. Still, the justices know that almost every decision they make will have inevitable political (and maybe even electoral) repercussions.
It is therefore fundamental to have many watchdog and oversight groups that are able to keep an eye open on what the Court might decide on delicate issues such as abortion, sex and racial discrimination, gay rights or international law.
Women’s rights are perhaps the most delicate issue when it comes to the subject of abortion. Groups such as the National Organization for Women pay close attention to every decision the Court makes on women’s rights. (abortion, sexual discrimination) The group was very critical of a 2007 Court decision to uphold an abortion procedure ban in the cases of Gonzales v. Carhart and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood. The organization has also “fought tooth and nail against the confirmation of Roberts, and even more passionately against Alito,” it says on its website.
There are also groups that strongly oppose Roe v. Wade, and would want to see it overturned by the newly shaped conservative Supreme Court. The National Right to Life Committee was created right after the Roe v. Wade decision, (1973) and has grown to about 3,000 chapters spread throughout the country.
Overall, there are many oversight groups that follow the Court’s decisions regardless of the subject. The American Civil Liberties Union, Change.org or Amnesty International are just some of the major watchdog groups that can help individuals have their voices heard inside the nation’s most influential and important Court.