Justice finally speaks, to ask an important constitutional question

What a difference a week makes.

 

On Feb. 22, media buzzed over Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. That day marked the 10th anniversary of the last time he asked a question from the bench. Pundits groused that he hadn’t piped up in so long. He appeared detached. Aloof.

On Feb. 29, Thomas finally piped up – during oral arguments for Voisine v. United States, a domestic violence case that highlights the issue of rightful gun ownership. More on that in a bit.

A lot of the same people who were aghast that Thomas said nothing were aghast that he actually said something.

You just can’t please some folks.

 

AS A JOURNALIST I’ve sat in on about a million meetings, and this is one of the things I’ve learned: Never be fooled into thinking that anyone who seems quiet or detached doesn’t know what’s going on.

Here’s my favorite example. I used to edit a newspaper in Covington, east of Atlanta, and covered a lot of city council meetings. The city manager then was Frank Turner, a middle-aged gentleman from a very respected local family, and a straight-shooting nice guy. He was at every council meeting.

And at a lot of those meetings, he whittled.

Now when I say “whittled,” I don’t mean Turner scraped a stick down to a point. At one meeting when I got a closer look at what he was doing, he was fashioning what turned out to be an ornate Celtic cross.

At another meeting I saw him working on a scale replica of a Colt 1851 Navy revolver. The curve of the hammer, the parts of the loading lever – when he was done with it, this wooden gun looked very impressive.

You almost would think he didn’t care what was going on during the meetings.

Almost.

The whole time Turner carved these small works of art, he also could tell you the location of any pothole in the city. He could rattle off any budget item, report the status of any bond issue and tell you the condition of any piece of local infrastructure. He always has loved Covington, and as city manager he knew it better than you know the back of your hand.

I say all this in defense of Clarence Thomas and myself – two guys who, when given a choice, don’t shoot their mouths off very much in public. We’re more comfortable writing.

 

IN UNDESERVED criticism of Thomas, detractors think that just because he’s not running his mouth all the time, he’s not a deliberative or intelligent jurist. Actually he follows oral arguments quietly and carefully, and his wisdom shows in his written opinions.

As for my written opinions, the jury, as a judge might say, is out.

When Thomas finally did say something Feb. 29, he actually posed a very important question – though some in the media tried to oversimplify the question and the issue, I think, to make Thomas look dim.

Voisine v. United States deals with whether reckless behavior qualifies as a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” under a federal law prohibiting certain convicted criminals from possessing firearms.

Here’s what Thomas asked government attorney Ilana H. Eisenstein: “This is a misdemeanor violation. It suspends a constitutional right. Can you give me another area where a misdemeanor violation suspends a constitutional right?”

According to The New York Times, “The barrage of sharp, pointed questions continued, with Justice Thomas seeming to have the better of several of the exchanges.”

It’s a fair question: Should a misdemeanor conviction indefinitely – you might as well say permanently – void a constitutional right?

But by the time Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles weighed in on the subject, he crammed these watered-down words into Thomas’ mouth: “Is it fair to take guns away from domestic abusers?”

Waaaay different.

If you asked me that question in such an overly simplistic way – should domestic abusers have guns? – I’d say no. Who wants to see some hotheaded wife-beater with a firearm to potentially blow a woman’s brains out, right?

 

I ALSO THINK convicted arsonists shouldn’t have matches. And convicted rapists shouldn’t have – well, you get the idea.

Fact is, states already are
disarming domestic abusers. Judges and prosecutors get to decide, on a case-by-case basis, which gutless cowards found guilty of domestic abuse deserve to own guns.

But Thomas wisely asked a broader question with far-reaching implications.

Says Reason magazine’s Jacob Sullum: “If the right to armed self-defense is guaranteed by the Constitution, Thomas is rightly suggesting, perhaps Congress should not be so quick to take it away.”

We’re not talking about wooden Navy Colts here. This is the future of the Second Amendment.

 

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