Bob Franken: Bench players

  • By Bob Franken
  • Monday, February 23, 2015 1:41pm
  • Opinion

I’ve always been baffled by those who disparage living in tropical climes because they like “the change of seasons.” Personally, I would be truly happy if there were no change, if it was warm year-round. Unfortunately, I’m here suffering winter in D.C., because what I do — covering politics — is done here. This is where most of it happens, for better and worse (mainly worse, as we know). Granted, it’s more moderate here than what those just a few miles north are going through — one of the few things that is moderate in D.C. — but it’s still a pain. Washington endures a lot of ridicule over how just a dusting of snow causes everything to shut down, but frankly, I think we have the right idea: At the first sub-freezing day, we should do like the bears and hibernate.

Even so, there is a glimmer of hope. Far to the south, in Florida and Arizona, where we probably should move the capital, either one, spring training has begun. The players are preparing for the baseball season, which means that all is not lost. They’re joined on the field by the umpires, who are sharpening their skills as callers of strikes and balls — who’s safe and who’s out. Only the most rabid fans of one team or another complain that they’re anything but impartial. Blind, perhaps, but impartial.

It was no accident that when John Roberts was convincing senators that they should approve him as chief justice of the United States, he described judges, including himself, as “umpires.” “But it is a limited rule,” he went on, “Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire.”

With all due respect, Mr. Chief Justice, you’re full of beans; you have thrown a beanball at the truth. Quite frankly, the justices all too often have put their politics ahead of the law. Citizens United, anyone? Or Bush v. Gore?

But it’s not just the Supremes who engage in that thinly disguised subterfuge. Like the umpires in baseball, judges “call ‘em like they see ‘em.” Unlike them, they demonstrably see them through the distorted lens of politics and ideology. At the state level, you have Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who ignores the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause. And at the federal level, the latest instance of a jurist’s predisposition is the ruling by district Judge Alexander S. Hanen, operating in Brownsville, Texas, who put a temporary stop to plans by the Obama administration to execute the first of the president’s executive orders that would lighten up on illegal immigrants. Need I even mention that Judge Hanen was placed on the bench by President George W. Bush? Cheered on by Republicans in Congress who are threatening to shut down the Homeland Security Department over their insistence that the White House back off its actions, Hanen declared that the Republican states that filed this lawsuit would suffer “irreparable damage” if the president’s executive actions were carried out. The decision to grant the states “standing” is considered a stretch by legal experts, as was another part of his ruling that the administration had violated administrative procedures. That’s also widely questioned. Most tellingly, Judge Hanen has thundered from his court on immigration before. Last August, he railed against the Obama administration’s deportation plans that “endanger America.” That’s hardly a measured opinion.

Of course, the umpires on the baseball diamond have an appeals process, and so do those in the judicial world. Sad to say, the higher courts also are stocked with political appointments with lifetime tenures. For federal judges, maybe we should consider term limits. Yes, that would take a constitutional amendment, and it’s fraught with peril, but perhaps we need to consider a mechanism to tell the judicial ideologues, “YOU’RE OUT!”

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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