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The Death of the Judiciary

So this was happening:

A member of the Oklahoma House drafted a resolution Wednesday seeking the impeachment of state Supreme Court justices who granted a delay of execution to two death row inmates.

Republican state Rep. Mike Christian told The Associated Press that the five justices engaged in a “willful neglect of duty” when they granted stays of execution Monday to Clayton Lockett and Charles Warner, both of whom were scheduled to be executed this month.

Lockett and Warner, who aren’t challenging their convictions, have filed a civil lawsuit seeking the source of the drugs used to execute them. Pending the resolution of that lawsuit, they asked for a stay of execution.

The Court of Criminal Appeals has said it couldn’t weigh in on the delay of execution because it didn’t have the power or the authority, so the high court said a “rule of necessity” led to its decision Monday. Under the state constitution, the Supreme Court handles civil cases while the Court of Criminal Appeals takes those involving inmates.

The Court later dissolved the stay.

At issue here is that the State of Oklahoma is refusing to reveal the drugs they use to execute people. Ostensibly, this is to protect companies that manufacture those drugs from being harassed by anti-death-penalty activists.

I’ll get into the merits of the case in a moment. But what I want to focus on is what I see as a looming threat to an independent judiciary. Over the last couple of decades, we have seen a slow push to gradually eviscerate the independence of the judicial branch. Politicians rail against “activist judges”, each political side screams blue murder when SCOTUS rules against them and now we finally have impeachment proceedings because of a disagreement with a court. And this isn’t confined to conservatives. Every time SCOTUS rules against liberals, there are cries to impeach the justices or at least limit their terms (conveniently to just after the last Republican President left office).

While these cries might be satisfying to those who rail against “activist” judges and are still fuming from either the Obamacare or the Citizens United decision, I see this as fundamentally dangerous to liberty. Because the protection of our liberty and our Constitutional rights requires an active independent judiciary. Both sides should understand this. Conservatives have won key victories in cases like Heller because the bench decided to act against the “will of the people” as expressed through their legislature. And some of our most bitter defeats — Kelo and Obamacare, in particular — have come about because the judiciary wasn’t activist enough and wouldn’t overturn a law. Liberals have also won key victories — like last year’s gay marriage decision — when the judiciary has over-ruled the “will of the people”.

In the end, this boils down less to any real philosophy about the role of the judicial branch than to whining whenever that branch doesn’t do what we want. Objecting to bad court decisions is fine. In fact, I think it’s required in a healthy Republic. But the tone of the last few years had turned away from criticism to active attacks and calls to limit the independence of the judiciary.

This trend worries me. I have expressed this concern before, but it’s worth repeating. I fear that we are slowly moving toward a regime where there is basically no one protecting our Constitutional rights. Congress and the President rarely, if ever, consider the Constitutionality of their laws. They say that’s for the Courts (in fact, Bush said exactly this when signing the blatantly unconstitutional McCain-Feingold Law). Everyone seems to agree that Presidents are just supposed to enforce the law, never bother with whether those laws violate our basic freedoms (with the exception of the occasional veto). And with the railing against courts for “ignoring the will of the people/legislature”, we’re moving away from judicial review as well. So given these facts, who the hell is defending our Constitutional rights? Jon Stewart?

This is the complete opposite of how things should be. When the government acts, the branches of our government should be like the officers in a nuclear missile silo — nothing happens unless all three turn their keys. All three have to agree that it is within the power of government; all three have to agree that it does not violate our Constitutional rights. Congress must not pass laws that violate the Constitution; the President must veto ones that do and refuse to use unconstitutional powers that the legislature gives him*; the Courts must bounce any law that violates the Constitution.

(*To be clear, this doesn’t mean the President should act on his own or rewrite laws or ignore laws. This power, which would be used very rarely, would only be used in the negative sense of the President refusing to utilize powers that he deems unconstitutional, such as if Congress suspended habeas.)

Now as to this particular case: some commentators are avoiding talking about what the criminals did. I won’t. One shotgunned a teenager and buried her alive. The other raped and murdered a child. While I am neutral on the death penalty, these would probably be the guys you would want to apply it to.

But the issue here is not the horrible crimes that these vermin committed. The issues it that Oklahoma is using a secret recipe for lethal injection — a formula that tonight resulted in the botched execution of one of the two men in this case. When the methods of execution are secret, there is literally no way to decide if it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Now maybe you think with what these guys did, they deserve to suffer. But we have laws and a Constitution for a reason and that reason is to protect everyone from the excesses of government. And when you chip away at anyone’s Constitutional rights, you chip away at everyone’s. The destruction of our Constitutional liberties always starts with people who everyone agrees are despicable, before proceeding to the rest of us. Free speech killers don’t start with Sesame Street; they start with the Klan and the Nazis. Surveillance fetishists don’t start with your backyard; they start with terrorists. And attacks on the protections in our criminal justice system don’t start with some kid smoking pot; they start with murderers and child molesters. There is good reason to believe that at least one innocent man has been executed and a new study claims that one in 25 death row inmates, and perhaps more, are innocent. Do they deserve to suffer?

We can not yield on Constitutional rights, not even with these pieces of human debris. Because once the freedom destroyers gain an inch, they will ask a mile.

But … even if we posit that the Court was wrong to delay these executions, a call for impeachment is ridiculous overkill. The Court did not set them free, commute their sentences or bake them cookies. They simply delayed their executions (as it turned out, for a few days). If the Courts are in danger of impeachment every time they make an unpopular decision, we might as well just do away with the Courts. Try people on Oprah and execute them on Springer. Who cares if innocent people are killed cruelly? It’s what the people want, isn’t it? That’s what baby rapists and child killers deserve, isn’t it?

An independent judiciary is going to make some mistakes and some bad decisions. But a non-independent judiciary that is subject to the whims of the mob is going to make bad decisions constantly. We already have two of our branches constantly doing the wrong thing. Do we really need the third to join in the fun?

8 comments

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  1. Ed Kline says:

    I agree with everything you wrote, which kind of sucks, because I have nothing to argue about.

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  2. Seattle Outcast says:

    I’ll argue that when we execute people we shouldn’t be worried about what drugs are being used to “humanely” execute them. You getting rid of a murderer so that they’ll never be a danger to the public again, quit making it so complicated.

    The hardware store sells nylon rope by yard, and we have lots of trees and lamp posts that will support the weight….

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  3. bgeek says:

    They should use fucking morphine: effective, humane, and cheap to boot. Just lay’em back with a generous dose to relax the body and mind, initially, and then slowly increase the dose until body and mind fall asleep, permanently. Zip up the sleeping bag and incinerate. Simple and clean.

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  4. Hal_10000 says:

    bgeek, that’s a little bit of mythology on morphine. It can kill; it doesn’t necessarily. And if you underdo it, you cause a lot of pain and psychological trauma. The lethal injection regime has been developed over a number of years for that reason (although, even in that case, a study in the Lancet concluded that the dosages aren’t always right and some people experience either excruciating pain or awareness of what’s happening to them).

    Drugs are tricky to work with at the best of times. People wake up during anesthesia despite enormous care and diligence. Ironically, SO might be right that the rope would be more humane.

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  5. CM says:

    Guillotine. Nobody ever complains once their head is on the ground.

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  6. Hal_10000 says:

    Guillotine. Nobody ever complains once their head is on the ground.

    Actually, weren’t there reports during the French revolution of decapitated heads mouthing and looking around for a short time?

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  7. CM says:

    Not complaining/appealing though. Which is the important thing.

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  8. Seattle Outcast says:

    You have to take that whole “the head is still alive” thing with a grain of salt. But it does make good fodder for horror stories.

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