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John Paul Stevens, RIP

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens died Tuesday at the age of 99, and although he’d only been retired for nine years he seemed a relic of a bygone era of American jurisprudence.
Stevens was another one of those many Republican-appointed Justices who turned out to be more liberal than most Republicans would prefer, but we expect that even the historians on the right will treat him respectfully. His 35 years on the Supreme Court made him the second longest-serving Justice, and during that long tenure he cast votes and wrote decisions and dissents that offended both sides of the political spectrum but always impressed almost everyone with their clear logic and factual underpinnings. He was also known for his bow ties and upbeat disposition, and during the summer we spent as teenaged messengers for the Supreme Court we noticed he was unfailingly nice to the help.
He also had an interesting 99 years of life, which began in his beloved Chicago in 1920. His father was a wealthy businessman and his mother was an English teacher, but the Great Depression cost his family its famously opulent downtown Chicago hotel, and his father was convicted of embezzlement in his attempts to save, although the conviction was later overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court. While his father worked at middle class job managing someone else’s hotel Stevens attended the University of Chicago, where he majored in English and edited the school newspaper and graduated in 1941 with the highest honors. Within a year he was serving in the Navy, stationed in Pearl Harbor and assigned to a unit of brainiacs charged with breaking Japanese codes, and at the end of the war he returned to civilian life with a Bronze Star.
Two older brothers were practicing lawyers, and Stevens’ family encouraged him to follow their path. He won admission to Northwestern University’s prestigious law school, where the brand-new G.I. Bill paid his tuition, and he was editor in chief of the law review and graduated first in his class with the highest grade point average in the school’s history. A Supreme Court clerkship to President Franklin Roosevelt’s last appointee followed, and then 22 years years of a lucrative law practice mostly devoted to defending big businesses against anti-trust suits and regulations. With a hard-earned reputation for integrity and such impeccably Republican credentials he was a natural choice by President Richard Nixon to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, based in Chicago, and in 1975 President Gerald Ford appointed him the Supreme Court.
The appointment was confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 98 to 0, which isn’t likely to ever happen again in our lifetimes, even with an appointee of Stevens’ undeniable qualifications, He was also the last Supreme Court appointee whose confirmation hearings weren’t televised, the last one who wasn’t questioned about his stand on the Roe v Wade decision that made first trimester abortions a constitutional right, and so far as we can tell he was the last Justice seated before the process became such a bloody political battlefield.
At first Stevens was pretty much what you’d expected from a Republican midwesterner with an anti-regulation and anti-anti-trust background, and joined with other Republican appointees in a narrow majority in the Bakke v University of Texas case that restricted but did not outright ban race-based admissions policies at the public universities, but over time he more often found himself siding with the more liberal Justices on matters ranging from the death penalty to abortion to the Bill of Right’s binding authority on the states to sex discrimination to even the authority of regulatory agencies. On each occasion we and the rest of the Republican right felt betrayed, but Stevens always had a better-educated and more clearly stated reason for his views, and by now most of his critics have mostly forgotten what all the hubbub was about, and in retrospect he think his views on the Bill of Rights applying to the states and not executing the mentally retarded were quite right. We still don’t like his vote on Chevron v Natural Resources Defense Council, which instructed lower courts to generally defer to a regulatory agency’s interpretation of federal statutes, but we wouldn’t have wanted to debate him about it in front of an audience.
Stevens stuck around long enough to annoy the libertarian left with a vote against the decision to protect flag-burning as free speeches and a vote for the decision that the federal government’s marijuana prohibition superseded the state’s right of California to to legalize it. He also annoyed the libertarian right by joining the majority Kelo v. City of New London that broadly extended local governments’ power of eminent domain, which we still hate, although once again we’d decline to debate him about it, and we note that the former real estate mogul and current Republican president is on the record saying he “loves” the Kelo decision.
As far as the purely partisan Republicans are concerned, perhaps his greatest betrayals were his dissenting opinion in the Bush v Gore case that resulted in President George W. Bush, and his resignation at the relatively tender age of 90 during the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama. That resulted in Justice Elena Kagan, who is further to the left than Stevens and far less grounded in all that old-fashioned facts and logic and the law stuff.
President Donald Trump has already appointed two Supreme Court Justices, both confirmed on strictly party lines, and he might yet get a third even without a second term. He left both choices to the conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation and the conservative lawyer’s group The Federalist Society, and there’s little worry that either of Trump’s picks will “evolve” the way that the picks of Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon and Ford and Reagan and George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush did. Our hope is that they remain true to their originalist and by-the-facts-and-letter-of-the-law beliefs, and are more loyal to that than they are to Trump when those congressional subpoenas the Trump administration is defying eventually reach the Supreme Court.
If the newest Justices are as smart and principled and humane as Justice John Paul Stevens, we’ll settle for that.

— Bud Norman

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The Perils and Potential of Republican Apostasy in the Age of Trump

There’s no doubt that pretty much every Republican in Congress goes home at night and complains at length to his or her spouse about something President Donald Trump said or did, and probably so do most of the people who work in the White House, but they rarely air their grievances in public. They’re afraid that Trump will “tweet” something nasty and give them a taunting nickname, and are sure that most of their party’s loyalists will consider them traitors to the cause.
There have been a few Republicans who have been willing to voice the occasional disagreement with Trump, mostly farm state politicians whose constituents have seen their profits diminished by Trump’s wars, along with a couple of others who were heading to retirement anyway, but so far only Michigan Rep. Justin Amash has been so bold as to say that Trump has committed impeachable offenses. Trump quickly responded via “Twitter” that Amash was a “total lightweight,” but it doesn’t seem to have intimidated the congressman, who wound up getting a standing ovation at his first public appearance in Michigan’s third district since he proclaimed his Republican apostasy.
The crowd at Amash’s “town hall” meeting in Grand Rapids on Tuesday obviously included a lot of Democrats, many of whom probably previously hated his staunch conservatism, but there were undoubtedly some Republicans who also stood up and applauded. One Republican woman in a red “Make America Great Again” ball cap berated Amash for his disloyalty to Trump, and when the audience started booing her Amash pleaded that she be treated with respect and allow her to ask a question, which eventually turned out to be why Amash had become a Democrat. He responded that his record on such traditional Republican principles as fiscal conservatism is far more impeccable than Trump’s, and even the Democrats in the audience cheered. There was another Republican woman with a t-shirt emblazoned by something we couldn’t read who asked a similar question about Amash’s views on impeachment, and he responded with a brief restatement of his lengthy and factual and logical reasons for thinking Trump has committed impeachable offenses. He then rightly noted that the rebuttals to his arguments, including those from his party’s leadership, have all been ad hominem fallacies
Grand Rapids is the hometown of the late and vastly underrated President Gerald Ford, who took office in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and epitomized an old-fashioned sort of Republicanism that stressed fiscal conservatism and prudence in foreign policy and the character of an office-holder, and Amash strikes us as a perfect Representative for the district. He’s far more libertarian than Ford was, which we quite like, and we hope he’ll fare well in his next campaign. He’s already got a more Trump-loving primary challenger, who will surely win Trump’s endorsement, but if he somehow survives the challenge he’s a shoo-in for the general election, as Trump wouldn’t dare endorse the Democrat.
If he doesn’t win renomination, which is quite possible, it’s not necessarily the end of Amash’s political career. He’s not ruled out the possibility of challenging Trump as a Libertarian Party candidate in ’20, and he’s already raised his name recognition for any races that might happen in the inevitable post-Trump era of Republican politics, when some record of resistance will surely be helpful.
Republican critics of Amash insist he’s a publicity-seeking grandstander, and ironically they do so in defense of the unabashedly grandstanding and publicity-seeking Trump, but we figure his risky stand is better explained by principle than pragmatism. So far the lengthy and detailed and well-documented arguments he’s laid out for Trump’s impeachment have only been rebutted by ad hominem attacks and cries of apostasy, and there’s always hope that the better argument will ultimately prevail.
If Amash somehow survives Trump’s “tweets,” or finds himself better positioned outside the Republican party, it might even embolden a few other Republicans to tell the public what they’ve been telling their spouses about Trump.

— Bud Norman

Jeb Bush Goes on the Dole

Former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole was briefly back in the news Wednesday with his endorsement of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential candidacy, and we were reminded of a long ago era of Republican politics. The Bush campaign is apparently hoping that the party is nostalgic for those old times, which largely explains why it hasn’t a chance.
At age 92 Dole is about as a senior a statesman as the Republican Party still has around, and his long and noteworthy career entitles him to some standing. He was a bona fide hero of World War II, overcame the lifelong wounds he suffered to start a distinguished career in the House of Representatives and then the Senate, was his party’s vice presidential nominee in the ’76 election, and after serving as Senate Majority headed the ticket headed in the ticket in the ’96 race. Except for the war record, though, none of it is likely to impress the average Republican primary voter of today. The party’s mood at the moment is angrily anti-establishment, and Dole is by now the epitome of the establishment.
Dole talked a tough conservatism when he first started rising through the ranks of Kansas politics, and in a gravelly prairie voice that made it all the more convincing, then he earned reputation for die-hard partisanship when was one of the last congressional Republicans to abandon the sinking ship of the Nixon presidency. In the wake of that disaster he was chosen as President Gerald Ford’s running mate to placate the right-wing crazies and employ his famously acerbic wit in the role of “hatchet man,” and he was so widely reviled by the left that for many years his conservative credentials weren’t questioned. In retrospect his early conservatism was just common sense opposition to all the Great Society nonsense of the Johnson administration, his devotion to the Keynesian wage-and-price-controll and Environmental Protection-agency-founding Nixon administration was ill-advised, and Ford’s nomination win over an insurgent Ronald Reagan still rankles the average Republican primary voter.
Dole was still a left-wing bogeyman and right-wing icon in the summer of ’78, when we served as interns in his Senate office, but his presidential ambitions had already started him on a more mainstream path. He was also careful to keep the Kansas constituents happy, and was a reliable friend of the farmer, especially the big agribusiness ones who were generous donors to his perfunctory re-election campaigns, and his hawkish stands on defense spending played well at the local air force base and the airplane factories that always had a friend when seeking a government contract, and his press releases would alternate between the latest pork being brought home to Kansas and the Senator’s tough stands on big government and reckless spending, but he also cultivated a national reputation as a pragmatic deal-maker and not one of the scary and unelectable conservative ideologues. When Ronald Reagan at long last won the presidency in ’80, proving that those scary conservative ideologues aren’t so unelectable after all, at least not after four years of Jimmy Carter, Dole was never able to get a good seat on the bandwagon and his positioned himself as a reasonable middleman.
Which was enough to get him easily re-elected in Kansas back in the day, when the Democrats had long since given up any hope of a very rare Senate win and started nominating their looniest liberals as sacrificial lambs so that base would have some reason to feel self-righteous as they went to the polls. As reporters at the local newspaper we got to cover the campaign of one hippy-dippy young woman whose name was drawn out of some threadbare hat to run as Dole’s Democratic opponent, who we found endearingly loopy and hilariously similar to every popular stereotype of left-winger, and who gave us the greatest drunken interview after her landslide defeat, and even the most anti-establishment Republican had to admit that Dole wasn’t one of those. We also covered Dole’s office in the early ’90s, which was quite a chore given his press office’s far greater interest in returning phone calls to The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as the Senator’s prickliness about even the most polite and even supportive questions, but there were never any stories that hurt his popularity within his party.
Deal-making and bi-partisanship and big money agribusiness donors and all the rest were accepted as business as usual in a party placated by the Reagan economic boom, as even it stretched into the otherwise-hated Clinton years, and it was sufficient for a candidate to claim that at least he wasn’t one of those loony Democrats. It worked well enough to give George H.W. Bush what was hoped to be third Reagan term, but neither Bush nor Dole could stave off eight years of Clinton. Another Bush managed to stave off Al Gore and John Kerry, which even the most anti-establishment Republican must admit is a public service, but he wound up ushering eight years of Barack Obama, with the possibility of another eight years of a Clinton, with all sorts of deals made and trillions of dollars of debt racked up, and by now even the mushiest sorts of Republicans are in an angrily anti-establishment mood.
Yet another Bush is trying to buck this anti-establishmentarianism, which isn’t going to happen, and the support of an even older establishment figure such as Dole won’t help.

— Bud Norman