Sunday, August 29, 2010

John Paul Stevens: Dumbest Supreme Court Justice Ever?

Matthew Franck at NRO's Bench Memos blog nicely refutes a kind of homage by Yale Law School instructor Linda Greenhouse to the recently retired Supreme Court Justice, John Paul Stevens. The context of Greenhouse's fawning is a case involving a display of the 10 Commandments on the walls of a couple of courthouses in Kentucky.
[Greenhouse] particularly admires one of Stevens’ worst notions, noting that he was “the only justice willing to articulate the position that laws incorporating the view that life begins at conception are theological exercises that should be invalidated on Establishment Clause grounds.” The “only justice” indeed. No other justice ever joined Stevens in this view, probably because it is one of the dumbest ever pronounced by a justice of the Supreme Court.

Stevens first expressed this view, to my knowledge, in his opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 492 U.S. 490 (1989), 560ff. The Missouri law at issue in that case had declared that every human life “begins at conception.” Justice Stevens professed himself incapable of seeing any “secular legislative purpose” in such a declaration, and held that therefore the law expressed a purely “theological” point of view and was thus a violation of the establishment-of-religion clause of the first amendment. But of course the “purpose” of the Missouri declaration was obvious on its face. It was intended to state, and did state, a fact as a predicate for the statutory requirements to follow. Standard textbooks in embryology, then as now, unequivocally declared the scientific fact that every human life begins at conception. What an embryology textbook cannot tell us, as a matter of biology, is what to do about that fact–what moral requirement, if any, that fact should impose on us. This is what the Missouri legislature, quite reasonably, sought to do.
You can read the entirety of Franck's excellent blog post here. There's even some St. Thomas Aquinas thrown in.

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