Wednesday, September 26, 2007

SCOTUS takes two mega cases

The 2007-08 session of the U.S. Supreme Court is shaping up to be huge. Yesterday SCOTUS announced that it will hear arguments in cases involving voting rights and the death penalty.

Voter suppression has a long and sad history in this country. For 220 years, there have been attempts, often successful, to withhold the franchise from certain types of citizens. As brilliant as the Framers were, voting rights is one of two areas where they really dropped the ball when only white male landowners were given the right to vote. (Slavery is the other, although one could make a strong academic argument that the young country would be DOA if abolition was in the mix.)

Poll taxes. Literacy tests. If you're reading this blog, there's a good chance you know the history. We finally started getting it right in the 20th century with the 19th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act, which backed up the 15th Amendment 95 years after the fact.

Today we find a much more insidious form of disenfranchisement. SCOTUS will hear arguments in a case from Indiana regarding a voter identification law. Now, to the average person who isn't mired in poverty, presenting photo ID might seem like a non-issue. And the argument that it will prevent voter fraud also sounds legit on the surface.

But there is something much more devious below the surface. An estimated 13-22 million Americans of voting age do not have government-issued photo identification. These folks are typically poor, disabled, the elderly, and minorities. Sound familiar? These are the very same folks who were disenfranchised by poll taxes, literacy tests, etc.

Plus, there's no evidence that the kind of voter fraud that photo ID would prevent is actually happening. Photo ID for voting is a solution in search of a problem.

Meanwhile, the death penalty is not a solution to the violent crime problem. The Court also announced that it will hear the case of two condemned Kentucky men who argue that the form of lethal injection in Kentucky is cruel and unusual punishment.

Nine states currently have suspended executions due to the lethal injection question. Unfortunately, the Court is not considering whether or not lethal injection as a method is cruel and unusual but is looking at the possibility for error with the cocktail of drugs used to kill the inmate. The NY Times explains it better than I can:
The issue in the case, Baze v. Rees, No. 07-5439, is not whether lethal injection, in the abstract, is constitutional or unconstitutional; the question is more specific and less conclusive than that. It is, rather, the standard by which courts are to evaluate the evidence that lethal injection, predictably and with some regularity, goes wrong: that a paralyzing drug can leave an inadequately anesthetized inmate with the ability to feel severe pain as another drug stops the heart, but without the ability to move or call for help.

Although this case will not be as sweeping as some might like, it further illustrates the mess that is capital punishment. This is just one more knot in a twisted and confounding process. We'd all be better off without the death penalty.

The hunch here is that we can expect more 5-4 decisions from the Court.

Andy in Harrisburg

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