Matters of Principle by Gary Hart

Posted by: Betsm

Op-ed by Gary Hart

Gary HartThomas Jefferson said that to expect a man [today he would say person] to hold the same views throughout life, while life changed all around him, was like expecting a man to attempt to wear the same clothes he wore as a boy.

That observation came to mind in reading one commentary on the judicial life of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. It was observed that he was not asked one question about his views on abortion during his confirmation hearings and that as a Republican nominee he was unanimously confirmed by a Democratic Senate (of which I was a member). During his lengthy service on the Court he changed his views on a number of key issues, not least on the death penalty.
This is obviously surprising, if not stunning, in two regards: the Court has become an ideological tug-of-war principally in the past three decades, and politics has become inhabited by people who cannot or will not change their minds on virtually anything as life changes around them.

This has to do in part with the theme of this blog: principles should not be changed, but what Jefferson called “style” can be. Certainly for some people, on both sides, matters such as abortion, the death penalty, and related social issues are matters of principle. But, in the case of the death penalty, Justice Stevens view on the matter changed because he came to see how poorly and unjustly it was being administered. The lesson has to do with the gap between principle and practice: in an ideal world, only mad-dog killers are executed; in practice, in the real world of fallible (or ideologically motivated) human beings, too many innocent people are executed. Experiencing this difference can cause thoughtful people to change their views, while still holding onto principle.

Like most of the ruminations on this blogsite, this is a matter for lengthy discussions well into the night. What some might draw from it, however, is to hope for judges and policy-makers who are open to changing circumstances, mind-changing experiences, the evolution of human events, new evidence and information, and a temperment that is willing to question old assumptions.

Many, but certainly not all, of the large figures I was honored to serve with in the 1970s, when a Supreme Court justice could be unanimously confirmed and before the ideological wars began in America, were people perfectly capable of learning, thinking, adapting to new evidence, and, in a word, growing. Thereafter, things began to change.

Our nation will not resume its mainstream course forward until we learn to put leaders who are capable of learning on the job, and who possess a judicial temperment, back on the judicial bench and in the Congress.

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5 Comments

Filed under Change, Politics, Pres. Barack Obama, Supreme Court, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Matters of Principle by Gary Hart

  1. ogenec

    Who is this Gary Hart fellow, and why does he keep making so much sense???? Just kidding 🙂 But seriously, the man’s earned his entree back into polite society with this and his other thoughtful ruminations.

    I have been distressed to no end by the recent commentary over Obama’s next SCOTUS pick. Litmus tests on the left. Litmus tests on the right. If the capacity to think for one’s self is unimportant in a Justice, if the issue is preordained merely by the happenstance of who nominated whom, then the Justices are completely irrelevant. We should select computers instead, pre-programmed to deliver the “right” answer on all manner of hot-button issues.

    Or we can just cut out the middleman, and do away with the Court. Let the legislators (and popular will) decide.

    Oh, my bad. I forgot. This is precisely the question we faced in Marbury v. Madison. And Justice Marshall put the issue forever to bed when he said this: “It is emphatically the PROVINCE AND DUTY of the [judicial branch] to say what the law is.” Which means, judicial independence. Which means, enough with the ideological tests already. Which means, go Kagan!!! 🙂

  2. OMG you just went against TM, LOL. I agree with you though, I am so tired of hearing all the garbldeegoop about who it should be. Left leaning, right leaning. Sheesh.

    Good to see you ogenec. Where have you been for pete sakes.

    By the way, I agree about Kagan!!!

  3. ogenec

    Hey Bets, this new job is kicking my butt. Get to work at 6 am, leave at 3 am kind of thing. I’m always tired!!! But I can’t complain, I love the job and its challenging for all the right reasons.

    How are you and your own personal in-house counsel? Say what’s up to him for me!

  4. Hey all is well here. My “in-house counsel” said to tell you that he’s glad he’s now retired. LOL. But he’s helping our son with paperwork on his problems with his ex.

    I’m glad to hear that you love your job. When do the wife and girls get there.

    Keep us in the loop. 🙂

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