Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Narrowly missing the point

  1. 1.
    (especially of something that is considerably longer or higher than it is wide) of small width.
    "he made his way down the narrow road"
    synonyms:small, tapered, tapering, narrowing; More
  2. 2.
    limited in extent, amount, or scope; restricted.
    "his ability to get good results within narrow constraints of money and manpower"
    synonyms:limitedrestricted, circumscribed, smallinadequateinsufficientdeficient
    "a narrow range of products"

Who knew that the word narrowly was so difficult to understand?

On Monday the US Supreme Court issued its ruling in the Masterpiece case -- otherwise known as the dude who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple case. In a 7-2 decision, the Court decided to punt the case down the road rather than deciding the case on its merits.

The media reported that the case was "narrowly" decided. Of course those who supported Jack Phillips' decision not to bake a cake for the gay wedding questioned how a 7-2 decision could be considered narrow. I would suspect that John Cornyn and Ted Cruz knew what "narrowly" deciding a case meant while they were sending out tweets in support of the decision claiming a victory for religion.

And, as an aside, if there was any doubt among y'all that the Republican Party stands for bigotry, hatred and discrimination, look no further than the officeholders who tweeted out about the decision and the words they used.

Anyone who paid attention in government class knows that the Supreme Court will always look to craft their opinion in a case as narrowly as possible since it is up to Congress to pass bills and the President to sign them into law. The purpose of judicial review (at least according to John Marshall) is to determine whether the application of a law is constitutional. The only time the Court strikes down a law itself as being unconstitutional is if there is no application of the law that can pass scrutiny.

This is the reason why lawyers will spend hours researching case law to find ways to distinguish the fact pattern in their case from existing precedent. If you can distinguish your case enough from those already decided by the court, you might just get the result you're looking for. And, in the same vein, it's why the lawyers on the other side will look for ways to pigeonhole the fact pattern in the case to an existing decision. As Tony D'Amato told his football team in Any Given Sunday, it's a game of inches.

In Masterpiece, the Court did not strike down the Colorado law Mr. Phillips was challenging. That would have been a broad decision - regardless of which way the Court leaned. In order to avoid having to make that decision, the Court looked at the application of the law in question and decided that the manner in which the hearing was held violated Mr. Phillips' right to freedom of religion (or, as I prefer, his right to use religion as a justification for discriminating against a group of people).

The Court wasn't happy that the commission who decided that Mr. Phillips violated the law seemed to be a bit hostile to his religious beliefs. Now, call me crazy, but if you're going to use religion as your defense to a claim that you discriminated against a couple because they were gay, then I think your religious beliefs are fair game in a hearing.

The funniest part of the right's celebrating the Court's ruling is that what the Court really did was instruct Colorado on the proper way to enforce their anti-discrimination statute. Let's think about this for a minute. The Court didn't declare the statute unconstitutional. The Court didn't say that forcing the baker to bake a cake for the gay couple infringed upon his religious beliefs. What the Court said was that the commission needed to conduct the hearing in a religion-neutral tone.

In other words, the next time the commission has to conduct such a hearing, the commission should let the baker give his reason for refusing to bake the cake. Then, instead of launching off into a speech as to how religion has long been used to justify racism, hatred, discrimination and violence, the commission should just ask him whether or not there was any other reason for him to refuse to bake the cake other than his belief that homosexuality was a sin.

If he were to say no, the commission could then vote and issue a ruling that he violated the statute in refusing to bake the cake. Based on Monday's decision, that would be upheld.

Of course the most amusing part of the opinion was Justice Gorsuch losing the plot and trying to explain what was a wedding cake and what wasn't and why it mattered.

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