BACKWARD, HO! The Bush-Ashcroft-Hatch Axis is going to control your life for the next thirty years--probably longer. In a week in which the Bushites have dithered on Iraq, blithered on Palestine and Israel, and blathered about tax cuts, the most important news on the domestic front--news that will affect at least two generations of Americans to come--was relegated to the inside pages of the mainstream media. The news was this: Last Wednesday, William H. Pryor testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Pryor, the attorney general of Alabama, has been nominated by George W. Bush to the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Pryor is a hugely dangerous man--not so much in himself, but because of what he represents. He does not believe in the separation of church and state. He does not believe in a womans right to choose. He does not believe in federal anti-discrimination laws. He solicits money from businesses whom he may later be called on to prosecute--and he sees no problem with that. What makes Pryor so dangerous is that he is not alone. There are swarms of Pryors out there, and pretty soon they will be controlling your life. If the Bush-Ashcroft-Hatch Axis has its way, William Pryor will be the future of American justice. This is because the neoconservatives, using George W. Bush as their puppet, and abetted by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch and Attorney General John Ashcroft, will soon have near-total control of the federal court system. For the future of Americas civil liberties, consumer rights, voter rights, worker protection, personal privacy, environmental protection, and reproductive rights, you should look about 100 years into the past. Thats where the neoconservatives want to return us. They ought to be called the retro-conservatives. By the end of 2004, it is likely that every one of the 13 federal circuit courts of appeal and certainly the U.S. Supreme Court will be dominated by judges appointed by the retro-conservatives in the Republican Party. These retro-conservatives are the ideological offspring of the men who, in the last century, voted against civil rights, against social security, against Medicare, against unemployment insurance, against consumer protection laws, against the minimum wage, against the progressive income tax, against privacy rights, against political free speech, against clean air and water laws, against even the most basic kinds of business regulation. They supported monopolies, union-busting, poll taxes, Jim Crow, and robber barons. If you dont believe me, go back and read the history books and see what the world was like in 1903. Todays retro-conservatives have a very simple agenda: to reestablish the status quo ante--the state of affairs that existed in the United States before the Great Depression. Their highest priority is to protect the wealth of the wealthiest. Their second-highest priority is to impose on the nation, by government fiat, a fundamentalist Judeo-Christian ideology. Their third-highest priority is to maintain the class system that keeps everyone in their place, especially the working class. The Bill of Rights has no place on their list of priorities. Heres the horror: If Bill Pryor is placed on a federal court of appeals, he might never leave until hes dead. Thats because federal judgeships are lifetime appointments. Heres more horror: In any given year, the federal appeals courts decide about 28,000 cases. These cases become law. By comparison, the U.S. Supreme Court decides only about 100 cases in a year. The federal courts make the law--and once the law is made in the United States, it takes generations to unmake it. Just ask African-Americans how many decades it took to change the doctrine of separate but equal. If Bill Pryor and his ilk take over our courts, heres some of what they will let happen:
the Ohio River will burn again, as it did in the days before clean-water legislation, and there will be more Love Canals and Exxon Valdezes, and more smog and acid rain, with no penalties on the corporations profiting from their own pollution
our national parks will be open to road-building, clearcut logging, strip mining--whatever abuses American corporate powers wish to heap upon them
the coat-hanger school of abortion will be open once again for your daughters and granddaughters
you will not be able to make love to the person of your choice in the manner of your choice without risking prison
the government will be able to incarcerate you without charge for as long as it wishes, in the name of national security
the government will be able to wiretap you, check your financial and library records, even eavesdrop on your bedroom without court order, again in the name of national security
you will have no protections if the car you buy turns out to be defective or the drugs you purchase dont contain what they claim to contain or if the food you buy is mislabeled
you will have no safety protections in your workplace--no protection if your employer poisons you or maims you
you will have no overtime wage protections, no right to unionize, no right to grievance procedures if youre fired
if you are black or disabled or homosexual or old or female, your employer will be free to discriminate against you
if you are black or any other minority, your election board will be free to discriminate against you
your childs classroom and your local courthouse will have the Ten Commandments on the wall, and the Lords Prayer read aloud, even if your child in school and the defendant in court is Muslim or Jewish
And thats just the start. If you dont believe me, go back and look at the world the way it was 100 years ago. The retro-conservatives like to call their philosophy the new federalism and claim its based on states rights. If you want to know what states rights means, go back to Bill Pryors Alabama of the 1920s and see what states rights meant if you were an African-American and wanted to vote, or if you were in a wheel chair and wanted to go to school, or if you were a woman and were being sexually harassed. Thats the world the Bill Pryors and the other retro-conservatives want to return us to. In fact, these neoconservatives have more in common with neofascists than they would like to admit. After all, the fascists, too, believe in protecting the wealth of the wealthy classes, in maintaining a strict class structure, and in using the influence of religious institutions and the powers of a police state to do it.
It is likely that very soon, George W. Bush, the retro-conservatives little Mussolini, will get to nominate at least two U.S. Supreme Court justices, to replace Sandra Day OConnor and William Rehnquist, both of whom will probably soon retire. It is further likely that Justice John Paul Stevens, who is 82 years old, wont last much longer on the court. Bush has said that he will nominate candidates who resemble his two favorite sitting justices: Antonin Scalia and Clarence Whatever Antonin Says Thomas. With three more justices on the Supreme Court who think like Scalia or parrot Scalia like Thomas, the Supreme Court will happily return us to the 19th century.
Retro-conservatives like Scalia prefer to call themselves strict constructionists. They claim that this means they interpret the Constitution strictly, not going outside the words found there. What it really means is, they interpret the Constitution in such a way as to maintain the status quo, to suppress nonconformity, to keep the lower classes and minorities in their place. Scalia believes that if a right is not clearly named in the Constitution, it does not exist--the right to privacy, for example, and the right of a woman to control her own body. He has, it seems, never read the Ninth Amendment: The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. The Founding Fathers worried that by listing certain rights in the first ten amendments, some stupid, evil or manipulative judge would come along and take that to mean that those were the only rights the people had. The Founding Fathers were right to be worried. Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, William Pryor and the other strict constructionists have done just what the Founding Fathers feared; if brought to power, they would leave us with fewer rights than ever.
What can you do to protect our federal court system from an infestation of ultra-right-wing, retro-conservative justices? First, give all the support you can, both in time and money, to organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freedom Forum, the Alliance for Justice and (despite its smug, pseudo-patriotic name) People for the American Way. Second, pay attention, learn whom the retros are nominating to your courts, and remember their names: Deborah Cook, Jeffrey Sutton, John Roberts, Carolyn Kuhl, Miguel Estrada, Priscilla Owen, Terrence Boyle--and study the danger of their opinions on the Internet. Third, write your senators in both parties and tell them to use their responsibility to provide advice and consent about judicial nominees so as to prevent the most extreme reactionaries from reaching the bench. Fourth, and finally, do everything you can to vote the Bush-Ashcroft-Hatch Axis out of office in 2004. Its the only hope we have that our future wont turn into our past.