13 May Audience of One
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
You might recognize that line, from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2, as famous, but its meaning has been roundly debated. Some scholars insist that the speaker, a ne’er-do-well character aptly named Dick the Butcher, is serious because he detests lawyers, since they are virtuous defenders of justice. Other scholars insist just as loudly that because the scene is one of Shakespeare’s comic-relief guttersnipe-street-people scenes, the remark is spat out as a laugh line aimed at corrupt lawyers and their high fees. Me, I think Will was, as usual, slaying two meanings with a single line.
That would work today, too. On the one hand, more than 700 and still counting former Federal prosecutors have signed an open letter stating that had the acts committed by Donald J. Trump as outlined in the Mueller Report been committed by any other American citizen, that person would have been in jail by now for obstructing justice. The principled signatories also reminded all of us that no one should be considered above the law because of holding an elected office. On the other hand, there is a depressingly large number of lawyers on board the sinking SS Trump, defending to the last their boss’s wanna-be dictatorial powers. One thing is certain. Some members of the bar are making quite a fortune these days.
What’s being done to the concept of the law’s dignity is another matter. The small and large relentless acts defying and shredding the Constitution of the United States is another thing altogether. In that process, words spasm into malleable, reverse, even senseless meaning, depending on their speaker. For example, the GOP lawyer brigade (which includes many senators), defends “tradition” when the Justice Department claims it is “tradition” that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Not law, mind you. Nowhere in the Constitution. Just “tradition.” The Trumpists cite that DOJ “tradition” reverently. On the other hand, they shrug at other traditions based on precedent—for instance, that a candidate or sitting president reveal her or his tax returns. Worse, far worse, they scoff openly at traditions established not only by precedent but by the Constitution itself, such as the Congressional obligation to exercise oversight of the executive branch, and Congress’s right and in fact duty to subpoena necessary witnesses required to get at the truth for testimony in pursuing their task to oversee. These particular “traditions” are called laws.
Tradition, to the once-respectable Republican Party, is now apparently all in the eye of the blindfolded.
But there are cracks in the Republican wall that Trump wishes he had built. Although Trump, his officials, and Mitch McConnell bellow wishfully, “Case closed!” Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr., sending shockwaves through the GOP ranks. Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee has put in motion a process holding Attorney General Barr in contempt of Congress. And meanwhile, the press is doing its job: The New York Times, for example, breaking the story we suspected, about which we now have evidence: that Trump was always a lousy businessman, grifting his way through millions of dollars from Daddy and from banks until nobody but the Russians would lend him money.
Still, there are those who continue to fret that the Democrats—especially Speaker Pelosi, Chairman Nadler of the House Judiciary Committee, and the other House Committee chairs–are “appeasing” by not having already dashed to full-out impeachment. Yet it might be wise to notice at whom those Democrats are actually aiming, to at least wonder if they might have a strategy, a reason for building an iron-clad case. Can it be that they think irrefutable facts and strict Constitutional adherence will impress their Republican colleagues across the aisle and in the Senate and convince them to change their minds?
The press often refers to Trump’s spokespersons as “playing to an audience of one”: the orange guy squatting in the White House slurping junk food and watching TV. Well, although Pelosi and Nadler are playing to a fractious public, they are also really playing to an audience of one.
Not Trump. Not Putin. Not Mueller, either. They are playing a long game, looking well ahead.
They are playing to John G. Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Most if not all of these issues are likely to be adjudicated, appealed, and resolved at the Supreme Court level. Trump has said straight out that he’s counting on that because he has stacked the court. He’s right. It certainly is not going to be Kavanaugh or Gorsuch who defends the Constitution against the man who appointed them. Nor is it likely that Thomas or Alito will suddenly see the light. It is interesting, though, to note that six of the nine justices sitting, two-thirds of the Court, are Roman Catholic (and all GOP appointed). There is one liberal Catholic, but Justice Sotomayor takes pains to call herself “a cultural Catholic,” neatly affirming her Latina culture while giving Rome the side eye. Then there is Roberts, by all accounts a seriously observant Roman Catholic. He knows that courts can make history and that they usually get nick-named after their chief justices: the Warren court, the Burger Court. He knows this will be the Roberts court.
He has earned his conservative stripes, voting to ban certain kinds of abortions (Gonzalez v. Carhart); forcing colleges accepting federal funds to permit military recruiters on campus even when the university objects to their discriminatory policies (Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights); overturning a school’s decision to use race as a basis for determining placement of students in schools even when the school was attempting to maintain integration (Parents Involved in Community Schools v, Seattle School District No. 1); and more. Yet he has fallen considerably out of favor with conservatives. He publicly chided Trump over the latter’s attacks on judges and the courts. He has often written and stated his concerns about preserving the reputation of the Supreme (Roberts) Court and protecting the legal system from political interference, which may well be the reason he surprised his right-wing colleagues by validating the authority of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in upholding the tax credits provided in the ACA. Roberts has remained constant in his deference to interpreting, not creating, law, even at the risk of angering his own political party. He considers that his job.
He is the audience of one.
He has become the crucial swing vote. His are the eyes to which Pelosi, Nadler, and the other House committee chairs intend to show an impeccable record of fairness, strict Constitutional observance, and care in their investigative processes and in exercising their prerogatives and obligations. That’s their job. They know, too, that Roberts knows how much Trump violates the rules sometimes just for the sake of violation.
It’s our job to demonstrate through public actions and pressure on Congress to do their job and remember that these days their job involves saving our Republic.
All this may eventually come down to the moral compass of one male, white, Catholic lawyer.
Come to think of it, perhaps we should find out the name of John Roberts’s priest.