District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, the subject of this week's Flyer cover story, professed, when asked, to be dubious about the Tennessee legislature's recent passage of a law allowing gun-permit holders to take their weapons into bars
and restaurants. "I'm aware of too many cases involving mixing guns and alcohol," gubernatorial candidate Gibbons said. So he would veto the measure if he were already serving as governor, right?
Wrong. It would be pointless to do so, Gibbons answered, since the pistol-packers' majority for the measure was top-heavy in both legislative chambers — meaning that a gubernatorial veto would be quickly overturned. Gibbons further opined that virtually all of the state's bars and restaurants would avail themselves of a loophole allowing them to post signs banning the bringing of weapons.
So, for all the alarms it provoked across the state, for all the embarrassment it brought to Tennessee in the nation at large, the gun measure was really meaningless? The district attorney allowed as how he thought it was.
The same question occurs to us with regard to another controversial legislative act, the overwhelming passage this week of Senate Joint Resolution 127, which began the lengthy process of a constitutional amendment that would prohibit any legislative act or judicial finding by a state court that would advance abortion rights beyond those guaranteed by the federal judiciary. In effect, the proposed amendment would strike down a 2000 ruling by the state Supreme Court which provided even stouter protection for abortion rights and admitted even fewer restrictions to them than did the U.S. Supreme Court.
Proponents of the bill, which passed the House this week by a 77-21 margin and had previously cleared the Senate by an equally lopsided margin, said the measure was needed to restore the state's "neutrality" with respect to abortion, though some zealous pro-life proponents saw in it the wherewithal to erect real obstacles to women seeking legal abortions. And some legislators even smelled an opportunity to impose legislative superiority vis-à-vis the courts, be they state or federal. Said Brian Kelsey, the brash Republican from Germantown, on the night the House passed SJR127: "It's not the court's job to put rights into the Constitution. It's the people's job to put rights into the Constitution, and that's what we're doing this evening."
Well, not really. To be sure, a constitutional amendment, if ultimately successful, would tie the hands of the state judiciary. But until and unless the U.S. Supreme Court itself sees fit to abrogate Roe v. Wade — and that is beyond unlikely, given the stated will and intent of President Obama, whose duty it is to nominate future members of the court — nothing fundamental will change. A Tennessee woman's right to an abortion will be protected by the same federal constitutional safeguards as a woman's in New York, California, or Anywhere, USA.
So is all the shrieking of hallelujahs by abortion foes and all the gnashing of teeth by supporters of abortion rights equally beside the point? It would appear so.
We have come to a sorry pass in self-government when the legitimate response to acts by our elected representatives is that what they do doesn't matter anyhow. But that would seem to be the consolation we're reduced to.