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Posts Tagged ‘Supreme Court

“The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization”*…

 

Cretin (n), “A stupid, vulgar, or insensitive person.”

It’s ironic that cretin is used to describe an insensitive person, because its origin is terribly insensitive. Cretin, like spaz, is an insult that evolved from a very real and very dreadful medical condition. It comes from a word used in an 18th century Alpine dialect. The word was crestin, used to describe “a dwarfed and deformed idiot.” Cretinism was caused by lack of iodine resulting in congenital hypothyroidism. Etymologists believe the word’s root, the Latin “Christian,” was to be a reminder that cretins were God’s children, too.

From Mental Floss, the origin of 10 familiar insults.

* Sigmund Freud

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As we mind our language, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Schenck v. United States-- in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s opinion famously observed that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”  As his observation passed into common parlance, “falsely” fell away and the condition of the theater was embellished– so that “shouting fire in a crowed theater” has come to stand for speech that is dangerous and unlawful.  The ever-precise Holmes recognized that, if in fact there were a fire in a crowded theater, one may rightly shout “Fire!”; indeed one might, depending on the law in operation, be obliged to.

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It was a frame-up…

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As political discourse in the U.S. has devolved into the nastiest kind of spitting match– dramatic thesis, passionate antithesis, no synthesis– antagonists on all sides of every issue invoke the Constitution, its Framers, and their intent… which, it seems, can be understood to justify just about any position.

So The Browser‘s recent “Five Books” interview with Jack Rakove on the U.S. Constitution couldn’t be more timely– nor more helpful.  As he explains his selection of the five books he’d most recommend to anyone wanting to understand the context for, the drafting of, the process of ratification of, and the ultimate role of “the oldest written constitution still in use,” the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Stanford historian sheds light in every direction, e.g., on the role of the Judiciary…

Most historians are very skeptical about the way that the Supreme Court is [interpreting the Constitution]. To reason accurately about the past is much trickier than one might think. The current version of originalism is what’s called “public meaning originalism.” It says we don’t really care about the history of how these provisions got adopted, we’re not going to try to reconstruct the debates to figure out what the framers wanted and what the ratifiers thought. We just want to get at the holistic meaning of the language. To historians this is a terribly flawed enterprise, but that’s the current regime… Language is dynamic. As the work of many historians, including my own work, attests, the 18th century was a period of political experimentation. The framers were rethinking the nature of representative government, they were rethinking the nature of executive power, they were coming up with new rules for judges. All this required a terrific amount of creative political thinking. The idea that language was fixed when all these ideas were being stretched and pressed in different directions, the idea that the meaning of a text is frozen at the moment of its adoption, it just strikes most historians as inane.

You’ve said that historians should call the bluff of people who twist the history of the Constitution for instrumental purposes. Please call someone’s bluff.
I submitted a brief in the District of Columbia vs Heller case, from three years ago. That was the case in which the Court struck down a 32-year-old handgun ban as incompatible with the Second Amendment. I think there are intellectual embarrassments of the first order in Justice Scalia’s opinion. He wholly ignores the history of how the Second Amendment got adopted. He makes things up that did not happen the way he hypothesizes. But I’m a historian and he’s a Justice. I’m a private citizen and he’s a public official. I think I have better footnotes, but he has a vote on the Supreme Court.

Read the entire fascinating interview (and order any/all of the books Rakove recommends) here.

As we muse that things could always be– indeed, once were– even worse, we might recall that it was at dawn on this date in 1804 that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met on a rise in Weehawken (NJ) to resolve their differences with a duel.  The rivals fired essentially simultaneously;  Hamilton’s shot was wide, but Burr’s hit its mark.  Hamilton died the following day.  While there was a good bit of personal animus between the enemies, their feud was fueled by deep political divisions. It’s proximate cause: Republican Burr’s feeling maligned by Federalist Hamilton.  But the bloody encounter was just one symptom of the deep animosity loosed by the first emergence of the nation’s political party system.

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I have this recurring nightmare about an exam for which I haven’t studied…

… the first of a series of questions at Nation’s Report Card‘s (U.S. Department of Education’s) web site– in the Fourth Grade section.  Having completed those, readers can graduate to Eighth and Twelfth Grade exams.

Makes one grateful for innovations in teaching like this one.

As we agree with Sam Cooke (and then again, wish that our Presidential contenders didn’t), we might recall that it was on this date in 1972 that the U.S. Supreme Court decided Furman vs. Georgia by a 5-4 vote, declaring capital punishment unconstitutional.  But it wasn’t a conclusive victory for death-penalty foes:  the majority based its decision on flaws in jury selection and sentencing processes…  which were addressed by several states over the next few years.  So, in 1976, when the issue came again before the Justices, they ruled that capital punishment could be resumed under a “model of guided discretion.”  And it was– with the 1977 execution (by firing squad) of Gary Gilmore in Utah.  In 2010, the U.S. ranked fifth in the world in the number of legal executions performed (behind China, Iran, North Korea, and Yemen; ahead of Saudi Arabia, Lybia, Syria, and the rest of the countries in the world).

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Color me _____ …

Feeling  _____?  About to head out for a night on the town in _____?  Then dress in _____!

From Zoho:Lab, an interactive version of (R)D favorite David McCandless’ “Colours of Cultures“…

click the image above, or here, for full-screen interactive version

And for a grid version, click here.

As we reorganize our sock drawers, we might recall that on this date in 1896 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that color mattered in a different kind of way: it ruled that separate-but-equal facilities were constitutional on intrastate railroads.  For half a century thereafter, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision upheld the principle of racial segregation in the U.S., across which laws mandated separate accommodations on buses and trains, and in hotels, theaters, and schools.  While the Court’s majority opinion denied that legalized segregation connoted inferiority, a dissenting opinion from Justice John Marshall Harlan argued that segregation in public facilities smacked of servitude and abridged the principle of equality under the law.

At a Rome, Georgia bus station, 1949 (source)

He who writes (the rules) wins the game…

(from the ever-illuminating Language Log)

As we sharpen our pencils, we might recall that it was on this date in 1971 that the U. S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Paul Cohen for disturbing the peace, setting the precedent that “vulgar” writing is protected under the First Amendment.

In April of 1968, Cohen had been arrested in the L.A. County Courthouse for wearing a jacket the back of which read “F–k the Draft”; he was charged with and later convicted of violating section 415 of the California Penal Code, which prohibited “maliciously and willfully disturb[ing] the peace or quiet of any neighborhood or person [by] offensive conduct.”

In a 5-4 decision, SCOTUS upheld Cohen’s appeal.  In the majority opinion, Justice John Marshall Harlan averred that “one man’s vulgarity  is another’s lyric.”  (For the minority, Justice Harry Blackmun demurred, arguing that Cohen’s “absurd and immature antic” was conduct, not speech– and thus should not be afforded First Amendment protection.)

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