Wednesday, June 30, 2010

When it rains, it pours ...

June 28, 2010 had the media tripping all over themselves trying to cover all the political stories that all seemed to intersect at once.  The most pressing issue was the death of West Virginia's senior U.S. Senator, Robert C. Byrd.  At age 92, this was not totally unexpected, but deep down, I wonder if many citizens of our state might have anticipated Byrd to complete his term through sheer will.  Beyond Senator Byrd's death, hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan opened with a few interested exchanges between her and conservative senators skeptical of Kagan's lack of judicial experience and liberal viewpoints potentially bleeding into decisions she might make.  Additionally, the Supreme Court announced a decision that would greatly limit state governments in their ability to regulate gun ownership.

Senator Byrd passes on leaving an unparalleled legacy.  He was the longest serving senator in United States' history and nearly surpassed others as longest serving for the entire Congress.  His political career at the federal level spanned more than 10 presidents and saw him serve in virtually every leadership position within the Senate.  Byrd was a master of the old school oratory that has lost its way in today's modern world where no one can speak with any real eloquence.  Moreover, Byrd defended the position of the legislative branch and was a staunch defender of the Constitution -- known for always having a pocket version available to cite if needed.

Byrd's service record for West Virginia is nothing short of amazing.  He spent many years as the chairman of the Appropriations Committee and steered numerous projects and billions of federal dollars to his home state.  Often known as the "King of Pork," it was said that Byrd would have moved the nation's capital to West Virginia if he could.  If someone were to doubt this, take a drive through our state some time.  You could stand anywhere, throw a rock, and hit a building, bridge or other object bearing Byrd's name.  Citizens in other states criticized Byrd for securing so much money for his state -- but that's the primary job of a senator.  The U.S. Senate was set up to represent the interests of the states and reflected as much by the fact that its members were originally selected by individual state legislatures.

Other than serving West Virginia, Byrd was active in helping dictate foreign policy.  Perhaps I am most impressed with Senator Byrd's ability to learn from history.  During the conflict in Vietnam, Byrd had voted to allow President Lyndon Johnson to have virtually unlimited authority in attacking North Vietnam.  Byrd later regretted such a vote.  In 2002-03, Byrd voiced his disdain for President George W. Bush's request for similar power (as Johnson) and cast a vote against such a measure.  So often, politicians are bashed for being a "flip-flopper" and at times, I don't believe that is necessarily a bad label.  Our society has a difficult problem admitting faults or mistakes, but Byrd was quick to learn from a mistake. 

Senator Byrd was also instrumental in the investigation into the Watergate hearings, the Iran-Contra scandal, and helped broker a profitable deal that returned control of the Panama Canal to its home country.

Despite his liberal beliefs, Byrd maintained many friendships across the aisle and knew how to disagree on a point without disagreeing with the person. 

The Supreme Court finished out the year's term by announcing a key decision in the debate over gun laws -- and sadly, the decision has been overshadowed by Senator Byrd's death.  Two years ago, another gun case, District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) asserted Washington, D.C.'s ban on handguns violated the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  However, because that was a case involving federal entities, the 2nd Amendment was not applied to state law. 

Because of that decision, several other suits were brought to challenge gun laws in other cities, hoping the Court would strike those laws down, applying the 2nd Amendment to state cases as well.  This was the crux of McDonald v. City of Chicago, where a decades old ban on handguns was challenged as unconstitutional.  The plaintiffs asserted the ban left them vulnerable to criminals and they had a constitutional right to firearms through the 2nd Amendment via the 14th Amendment's Due Process Clause (see:  substantive due process and selective incorporation for further info). 

The Court voted 5-4 (along the same ideological split as Heller) to strike down Chicago's law banning handguns.  Residents bringing the suit brought interesting information forth, noting the high crime statistics (that even showed the city's murder rate had increased since the ban had gone into effect) and the fear they have for their safety, particularly that of elderly citizens. 

What does this mean for Americans living in places where bans on certain types of weapons exist?  No one seems sure right now.  This case only struck down the ban on handguns in Chicago.  The Court did not put forth any type of test or criteria for states and municipalities to use in determining what is an acceptable limit on firearms and what is not (I had hoped for something similar to a Lemon or Miller test).  Now, all levels of courts could be flooded with challenges to existing gun restrictions.

Does this case mean all restrictions on firearms are doomed?  No, people will not be walking the streets with bazookas any time soon.  Nor will they be sporting assault rifles.  The two cases previously mentioned dealt with handguns (i.e. pistols, revolvers).  I have a feeling the Court is not at all finished with the subject of guns.  I believe the 2nd Amendment was designed to allow gun ownership for militia related purposes ... defense and you could also throw in hunting.  But some restrictions must be in place.  Not much precedent exists on this subject material and that is somewhat disconcerting.

What concerns me more than the vagueness of the case is the ideological splits on the Court.  Elena Kagan's nomination is all be secured and the Senate's questioning of her left much to be desired.  She did what most nominees do -- claim to make decisions based on the law, leaving their personal feelings aside.  According to history, this doesn't seem likely.  Look at any major case in the past 40 years and you seem mostly ideological splits.  The justices seem to have their minds made up as to what the law should be ... then find precedent or rationale to back up that point, regardless of the law.  Complete objectivity on the Court is unlikely, but the lack thereof is so obvious.  What violates the Constitution or doesn't depends on the whims of the majority of the Supreme Court -- a body made up of nine human beings who have lifetime appointments.  I wish I could say I had high hopes for Kagan, but she will replace Justice Stevens and fill the liberal void.  More 5-4 decisions are on the way!

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