Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Smart Counterargument to Libertarians

The Green Bag, a legal journal, just published a fantastic Almanac and Reader (2008). Law students and lawyers should read the excerpt, "Making Your Case--The Art of Persuading Judges," by Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner. Although I majored in English and took legal writing courses in law school, Scalia's excerpt is a must-read for anyone who wants to write effectively. The entire book can be found here.

The Almanac has other wonderful articles, including one by J. Harvie Wilkinson III, "Toward One America--A Vision in Law." [page 296] Although I am inclined towards libertarianism, Wilkinson made me see why others are against the view that individual rights and self-interest reign supreme:

Let's restore a constitutional respect for community. It is futile to expect a healthy nation in the absence of a health sense of community. Community instills within us the sense that we live for something larger and more meaningful than just ourselves...Communities are built around shared purposes and values, one of which is surely a respect and appreciation for individual rights. But there must likewise be the sense that individuals contribute to, as well as take from, this larger whole of which we as single persons are but parts...

It must still be asked whether the notion of free-floating, i.e. non-textual, constitutional rights of personal autonomy has not helped to deprive us of a sense of connectedness that is indispensable to the formation of a collective identity. There is a limit to which individual intimacies should be at the sufferance of majorities, but there are likewise limits to the extent that democratic majorities in a state or nation can be deprived of the communal right to promote cherished values. To enshrine a sanctity of self in our founding charter without textual or historical warrant may be just as pernicious as the attempt to enshrine discrimination against those whose personal choices may for good and legitimate reason fail to conform to the majority's own...

When we next drive through the countryside or take a moment's pause, we might reflect on what we get from living in society. We did not build our own home; make our own car or clothes; or invent the computers, phones, lights, or appliances we not take so much for granted. Left alone, we could not enjoy a concert, educate our children, put out a fire, raise capital, or take a trip. We would, in short, be miserable and helpless. [Green Bag Almanac and Reader, 2008, at 303-304]

Wilkinson makes some good points and ultimately claims the middle ground. Continuing on the topic of good writing, he demonstrates the most effective writing style--moving your audience to a reasonable middle ground. However, I still disagree with the idea that communal rights should trump individual rights. The foundation of freedom is built upon two principles: 1) limitation of government power against its own citizens/residents; and 2) respect for the minority. Establishing a community sounds fine in theory, but when push comes to shove, the minority view is usually drowned out, and the government may run roughshod over their rights. Yet, that's precisely when the law and the courts should enter--at the inconvenient time when the majority, already backed by their elected representatives, are attempting to limit the individual's or the minority's freedom.

The law is designed for inconvenient times. When it's heart-wrenching and difficult, that's when the court's pen should be unsheathed to calm the masses and to protect the individual. When the Jehovah's Witnesses are being persecuted and beaten in the schools for not taking the oath of allegiance, that's when the Court should intervene. When a political party is castigating a minority group for a nation's troubles, that's when a strong judge must use the law and remind citizens to let others alone. When the government and the majority see outside threats and want to use torture, that's when the courts should immediately remember why they exist--to use the consistent, steadying rule of law to prevent individual oppression. (By the way, federal judge Jay Bybee and UC Berkeley Professor John Woo encouraged the Bush II administration to define torture as "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." [p. 545] I'll take my individual rights now, please--I don't want any part of that community.)

Viewing his ideas in this light, Wilkinson sounds more like he's arguing for fascism than freedom when he talks about courts respecting the community. In times of prosperity, I would agree with him; however, it's when stress and conflict enter the picture that the rights of the individual are too often ignored in the interests of community and safety. Sadly, in almost every major conflict between community and the individual, courts have initially sided with the majority at the expense of the individual. See segregation (Plessy v. Ferguson); refusing to take the pledge of allegiance (Minersville School District v. Gobitis); Guantanamo Bay (it took seven(!) years for a court to finally reject this executive order); Chinese Exclusion Act (1882); and free speech rights (Dennis v. United States). In tough times, I wouldn't put my faith in the community--not with that historical record.

Speaking of the middle ground, Judge Henry Friendly apparently embodied it. He was said to have the "gift of moderation," the "silken string running through the pearl-chain of all virtues." [Id. at 379, Michael Boudin, "Judge Henry Friendly and the Mirror of Constitutional Law."] As an attorney, Judge Friendly seems like my kind of judge--someone who personifies moderation. We have a local judge who embodies this moderation principle, too. I have never seen him lose his temper. Even when he has gotten irritated with my inexperience, his irritation has been swift and has not prevented him from briefly explaining what I am doing wrong. I don't like to name names when it comes to judges, but Santa Clara County is lucky to have a judge like him.

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