Friday, June 19, 2009

Tonight, on a Very Special Supreme Court: John Roberts Guest-Stars as Tevye

Tradition! It provides a sense of cultural continuity and a place for everyone to occupy, lending a comforting sense of order to everyday life--or an oppressive sense, depending on your tradition and your prescribed place within it--and gives us fun things like Fourth of July fireworks and Uncle George picking political fights with anyone at the Thanksgiving table who's within earshot.

Sometimes it has a nasty way of backfiring, though, as our man Tevye learned in Fiddler on the Roof when his daughter, like, totally ran away from home with her boyfriend instead of entering the nice arranged matchmaker-matchmaker-make-me-a-match marriage her father had arranged with Lazar Wolf. Or, continuing the nuptial theme, tradition can be used as a cudgel by people who don't want, say, two people to enter into a marriage that doesn't look like their own--an argument used most prominently, recently, and distressingly, of course, by the DOJ in their DOMA brief for the administration.

Tradition, in short, is a lousy argument for refusing to change a system. And while it's a rationality-free fallback argument when used by anti-marriage-equality people, it's at least as predictable and understandable as irrational arguments can be. When it's the basis for a Supreme Court ruling against convicted people's rights to potentially exonerating DNA evidence, though, it's downright alarming. And that's the tack John Roberts took yesterday when he wrote a majority opinion that punts the question of whether convicts have the right to tests that might prove them innocent.
The "challenges DNA technology poses to our criminal justice systems and our traditional notions of finality" are better left to elected officials than federal judges, Roberts wrote for the majority in a 5 to 4 decision.

Traditional notions of finality. As in, for fuck's sake, back in the day we got a conviction and the bastard swung from a rope and that was that. And now, rather than having trained jurists address the question of whether all defendants convicted within the judicial system have the right to access evidence provided by new technology that did not exist at the time of their trial, Roberts says, it will be so much better to have popularly elected former car dealers and real estate brokers making that decision.

And if a defendant had the misfortune to be convicted in a, you know, traditionally bloodthirsty state like Texas, where any hint of considering convicts' rights softness on crime means those popularly elected officials will be out of their cushy Capitol offices and back on the lots of Laredo? That's too damn bad. Because we have traditions in this country, dammit, and that's what matters.

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