Saturday, August 09, 2003

Pryor’s toes get scorched
I have been hoping that Judge Roy Moore’s illegal Ten Commandments monument in Alabama might start to cause some discomfort for Republicans higher up the food chain and draw attention from outside he usual church/state crowd. As the story moves towards its climax it might do just that.

Moore, you will recall, first came the public eye as a local judge defying orders to remove a Ten Commandments display from his courtroom. He used his notoriety to get elected Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court on a platform that was little more than promising to continue annoying liberals. True to his word, soon after moving to the big courthouse in Montgomery, he had a 5,280-pound Ten Commandments monument plopped in the lobby in the middle of the night. televangelist D. James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries in Fort Lauderdale, FL filmed the stealthy event and used the videos as a fund raising tool (God’s will defended for $19.95). The dark forces of liberalism (that’s us), of course, sued and the State of Alabama has been defending Judge Moore through various losing appeals ever since.

Having lost his last appeal, US District Court Judge Myron Thompson has lifted a stay that allowed Moore’s monument to stay where it is pending appeals, and given the State of Alabama till August 20 to remove it. After that hefty contempt fines will kick in and escalate.

So far, this might be just another story of some reactionary making a local embarrassment of himself by shaking his fist at the modern world. The usual liberals and the usual fundamentalists have rushed to the aid of their respective sides and that should be that. However, stories like this have a way of attaching themselves to national politics.

Moore’s defenders have managed to make this a much bigger issue. Rep. John Hostettler (R-Indiana) attached an amendment to a Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary spending that prevents the use of federal funds to carry out the removal (Me, August 1, my links are Bloggered. Damn!). Hostettler’s amendment was passed by nearly all of the House Republicans and a disturbingly number of Democrats who are either unclear on the concept of balance of the branches of government, or, more likely, eager to pander to the reactionary vote in their home districts.

One of Moore’s most fervent defenders back home has been William H. Pryor, Jr., the Attorney General of Alabama and Bush's nominee to fill an 11th Circuit vacancy. Pryor has a long history of denying the existence of a separation of Church and State (among other alarming beliefs). His nomination is currently being filibustered by Senate Democrats. His nomination has taken an especially ugly turn since Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the Republican talking point of accusing anyone who opposes Pryor of being biased against Catholics (Pryor being a conservative Catholic).

Three things keep the Moore case from being just another local idiocy. First, Rep. Hostettler made it a national issue by tying enforcement of the court’s will to a federal spending bill. Second, Judge Thompson aimed his enforcement at the State of Alabama, not Roy Moore; any fines will come out of the already strained state’s coffers. Third, and biggest, Bill Pryor can’t escape his part in this. Just at a time when it would be in the best interests of his Senate confirmation to look like a mainstream judge, his opposition to most recent (by which I mean, the last half century or so) constitutional interpretation will be pushed into the headlines by this case.

The attorneys Pryor named to defend Moore, D. Stephen Melchior and Herbert W. Titus, chose to base their arguments on long-discredited theories of states’ rights. The federal government, they argued, has no authority over state constitutional issues. Their arguments are essentially the same arguments used by George Wallace to resist integration flour decades ago. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has called on Pryor to fire Melchior and Titus for incompetence. Americans United, one of the plaintiffs in the suit to remove the monument, appears to be determined to keep the pressure firmly applied on Pryor.

Pryor’s outdated defense of Moore shows how reactionary the Bush administration is. I’m not the first observer to point out that while Reagan and Gingrich only wanted to reverse Johnson’s Great Society, Bush wants to reverse FDR’s New Deal and possibly also Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal. Pryor’s states’ rights position would turn the clock on constitutional law back a half-century or more. Moore and Pryor show that this administration wants to be our bridge to the nineteenth century, and despite the cowboy nostalgia that seems to fill the head of the leader of the free world, I don’t think the reality of that century is a place most of us would like. Even the white males.

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