January 17, 2006

"Judicial activism" - Tripping the "truthiness" meter

[I reproduce the following article in its entirety for three reasons. First, because it's good stuff. Second, because it offers a perspective born of greater focus upon politics and the law than I usually offer. And third, because it was written by my daughter, Hanna, who is a Poly-sci/Linguistics double major and Associate Opinion Editor with her school paper.]

When Real Judicial Conservatives Attack
If there's anything to be learned from the intelligent design debate, it's that branding "activist judges" is the hobby of bitter losers.
Hanna Camp

For those who care about the fight over evolution in biology classrooms, Christmas came five days early when the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District ruling was handed down. In his decision, Judge John E. Jones III ruled that not only is the theory of intelligent design religion poorly dressed in science language, teaching it in class is an outright violation of the First Amendment.

The ruling was a concise and devastating demonstration of how law, precedent and evidence can come together to drive complete nonsense out of the courtroom. But if the aftermath of the event proves anything, it proves that nine times out of 10, if someone accuses a judge of being an "activist," it is because he disagrees with the ruling and wants to make it clear to like-minded followers that they only lost because the liberals are keeping them down. Gratuitous overuse has, in just a few short years, turned the phrase "judicial activism" from a description of an actual problem in the legal system into a catch-all keyword for any ruling that social conservatives dislike.

During the months between the initial suit and the final decision, a high-powered law firm from Chicago volunteered some of its best to represent the plaintiffs pro bono, defenders of evolution and intelligent design mobilized, and few people really cared other than court watchers, biology nerds and a suspicious number of creationist groups. The trial went well for the plaintiffs: Their witnesses and evidence were presented expertly and professionally, and it never hurts when at least two of the witnesses for the defense are caught perjuring themselves in their depositions. Advocates for teaching actual science in school science classes were fairly confident that Jones was going to rule in their favor.

When it came, the ruling was significant enough to earn a slightly wider audience than the aforementioned court watchers, biology nerds and creationists. What drew interest from newcomers was not the minutiae of the trial, but the scope of Jones' ruling and the scorn for the Dover School Board's actions that practically radiated off the pages. He ruled both that intelligent design was a religious idea, and that teaching it in a science class was an unconstitutional establishment of religion by the state. He didn't stop there, however.

"It is ironic," he wrote, "that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the intelligent design policy."

Such harsh language might provoke some sympathy for intelligent design advocates, if they hadn't immediately demonstrated how much they deserved it by responding - not with scientific arguments for intelligent design or legal precedent to contradict Jones' ruling - but with ridiculous name-calling. The Discovery Institute, the leading center of ID advocacy, referred to Jones as "an activist judge with delusions of grandeur." Bill O'Reilly also brought out the "A" word on his show. Richard Land, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and noted drama queen, declared him the poster child for "a half-century secularist reign of terror." The American Family Association, having apparently read a different ruling than the rest of America, insisted that judges were so eager to keep God out of schools that they would throw out even scientific evidence for Him. Funny how so many creationist groups seemed to have missed the memo that intelligent design isn't supposed to be about God at all.

It was depressingly predictable that the intelligent design crowd would saturate the Internet with cries of judicial activism regardless of the actual legal soundness of the ruling. In only a few years, intellectually lazy political leaders have morphed an honest problem in the judiciary that deserves serious debate into shorthand for social conservatism's flavor of the week. The phrase has been spread around so much and applied to so many people that it only has meaning within the context of someone's rant. It is the politico-speak equivalent of "dude."

Only when one learns that Jones was appointed by George W. Bush and had conservative backers that included the likes of Tom Ridge and Rick Santorum can one appreciate how indiscriminately the term is thrown around. Jones is demonstrably a judicial conservative. In fact, he's the kind of strict constructionist that social conservatives claim to want on the bench. Their mistake is in assuming that the law and their ideology must necessarily be the same thing.

In the end, no one could defend Jones better than he did himself. He saw the breathless accusations of judicial activism coming a mile away, and refuted them within the text of the ruling. In his conclusion he wrote: "Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on intelligent design, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop, which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources."

Jones knew his name would be dragged through the mud and issued the correct ruling anyway. One can only hope that the utter childishness of the intelligent design response will alienate even more sensible people, and that the phrase "judicial activism" will from now on be used only by those who know what they're talking about. No bets on the latter.


Blogger Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

My only disagreement with this excellent piece is the statement that, before the judgement came down, few people cared about the trial. It was considered important enough that, once the evidence was in, but BEFORE the verdict was handed down, the NEW YORKER had a long piece on both the trial and the judge. (It didn't actually predict the verdict, but the way it discussed the trial made the actual verdict no surprise.) It was the issue of December 5th and there is a Q&A on the NEW YORKER web page.

Obviously some people in the world at large were interested. In fact, the interview mentions a 'British documentarian' who was following the case.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

What would be wrong with having our schools teach, not in Science classes, but elsewhere, "Contemporary Controversies" among which the ID vs Blind Evolution dispute could be considered?

Also: Since science teaching seems to be largely a failure [given the number of people who believe in astrology, alternative medicine, etc], why would any intelligent intelligent design follower want his theories taught there anyway?


10:57 AM  

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