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Contemporary Culture and the Rule of Law

Legal scholar John McGinnis has written an interesting review of a play that explores the psychological roots of Antonin Scalia’s approach to Constitutional interpretation. McGinnis begins by acknowledging that:

Antonin Scalia is the only current member of the United States Supreme Court with a personality big enough to justify a stage play. And in playwright John Strand’s The Originalist, now playing at Washington’s Arena Stage, actor Edward Gero captures the justice’s gregarious charm without descending into caricature.

Nevertheless, McGinnis’s review is generally critical. He faults the play both for factual errors and for the way it presents conservatives as "buffoonish" caricatures, and–after noting that, "Mistakes about basic facts and character assassinations of conservatives are almost de rigueur in contemporary dramas, whether on stage or screen."–he speculates about why the play goes astray in its attempt to explain Scalia’s approach to jurisprudence as having "something to do with impressing his father":

The play’s treatment of biography as destiny reflects powerful currents of our time. The media persistently dissect motivations and psychology at the expense of principles and ideas….

Nothing is more conventional in an individualist culture than proclaiming that only the peculiar passions and desires of individuals matter. Our Constitution is founded on the premise that abstract principles, not passions, best restrain government. Most of the Constitution’s core principles–such as federalism and the separation of powers–don’t establish political objectives, only the dull procedures by which we decide them. But in an age when everyone must celebrate his own authenticity, a jurisprudence of self-restraint and impersonal discipline sails against the wind.

Police Misconduct and the Feds, Continued

The outcome of the Department of Justice’s two-year enquiry into misconduct by the Cleveland Division of Police was announced this week:

The 105-page consent decree, which must be approved by a federal judge, calls for dozens of rewrites to the Division of Police rulebook on force, many of them tactical and aimed at preventing the kinds of cases that have become front-page fodder in recent years. The agreement also demands levels of accountability and transparency that did not exist or were not endorsed or enforced previously.

Accountability and transparency are good, of course, but, as I’ve pointed out before, given how often and how grievously federal law enforcement agencies misbehave, stories like this one generally leave me thinking in terms of pots and kettles!

Not Setting a Very Good Example

In a series of articles for The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has been giving Amtrak passengers a chance to tell their stories of harassment by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and others. I mentioned the first of those harassment victims a couple of weeks ago. Last week Friedersdorf presented the story of another: Aaron Heuser, a 37-year-old mathematician who took the train from Eugene Oregon to Washington, D.C., because he was afraid of flying. Heuser described being awakened in the middle of the night by DEA agents who asked if they could search his sleeping compartment. When he refused they took him to another car for questioning, and when he eventually returned to his compartment:

I found my backpack moved and open, and my wallet, which was set down on the room table, had $60 missing. I told one of the dining car attendants that I felt Amtrak and the DEA violated my rights. She told me that Amtrak is forced to give passenger info to Feds, that the DEA comes on every trip, usually arresting someone in the sleeping car or taking all their money. When I asked for her name in case I needed it later she refused and told me Amtrak would fire her.

Many more victims’ stories appear in this week’s article, including these:

I still feel so violated, and was approached exactly the same way as others in your story. I had a sleeper car as I was going from Austin to Los Angeles. Mine happened in Arizona (don’t remember exactly where), but I was finally told (when I tried to repeatedly ask why I was being harassed) that I "matched a description" of a drug dealer…. I was told that if I didn’t cooperate and let them search me, they would arrest me and take me off the train. I am still disgusted at myself that I let them.

I quit using Amtrak due to a 4 a.m. search and robbery of $300 in cash (thank god for travelers checks) by cops in Buffalo. Good luck with your story. It is nice to see the rest of the country finally getting it. There has been a police state, a profit-driven one, rising in this country due to drugs prohibition.

While traveling on Amtrak from Chicago to Toronto the train was boarded by U.S. Customs agents who proceeded to take me and my luggage off of the train to a small shed where everything was searched. The train waited during this time. I was the only one taken off the train. I had been riding with the rest of the economy passengers and not in a sleeper car. After a 15 minute search, I was told to go back on the train. I then stated that I thought it was unfair that I had been singled out. The agents told me it was because I was from California!

If this kind of misconduct is occurring as alleged then we don’t really need two-year-long enquiries to figure out the cause, nor do we need 100-page-long consent decrees to prevent it. We just need to start making sure that law enforcement officers at all levels abide by the Constitution and that those who flaunt it are punished.

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