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  • Reverend James Squire

No One Is Above the Law Except

The title of this blog is often heard particularly in the past several days. First, it was Trump, and more recently it is Santos, Biden, and now, Alec Baldwin. When teaching this aspect of justice in ethics class, I would usually use the phrase “what you do for one, you must do for all.” Both phrases mean the same thing. We seem to use it in many situations in the same way we have used the phrase “thoughts and prayers.” Overuse will cause loss of its impact. Let’s take a deep dive into what it means.

I will use my own thinking combined with an article on the origin of the phrase by Alexander Atkins as well as a little-known incident involving a member of the Supreme Court that was written by Ellena Erskine.

Trump and Santos’ actions regarding justice and the law are too numerous to mention. We don’t know enough about President Biden’s situation to comment. Yesterday we learned that Alec Baldwin has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and again the phrase has been used.

When considering an examination of these incidents and justice, we must remember that there are three things that will always enter the discussion. They are intention, context, and reasonable person standard. Let me focus on these three ingredients and Alec Baldwin which would also play a role in the other individuals’ situations. Did Alec Baldwin intend to harm Hannah Gutierrez Reed? It doesn’t matter. It is enough to pass the bar of guilt even if it was an accident. What was the context in which Ms. Gutierrez lost her life? This is where the Attorney General of New Mexico was making her case and inevitable charge for Involuntary Manslaughter. The set was described as “loose and free” of basic safety measures. Why were live bullets on the site of the movie? Whose job was it to make sure the gun was not loaded with a live round? If we took a group of people looking at this situation, how would they assess it? The Attorney General of New Mexico took counsel with other people about the appropriate charge. Celebrity doesn’t affect the situation which would be raised in the Trump, Santos, Biden and Baldwin cases.

If the phrase, “No one is above the law” is being used so frequently, the average person in the street should know something about the origin and complete meaning of the phrase. I bet that the people using the phrase know little about the background of this ingredient of justice.

We see this phrase used on December 7, 1903 in Washington with the words of President Roosevelt. “On that date President Theodore Roosevelt delivered his Third Annual Message to Congress. The complete phrase that Roosevelt used was ‘No man is above the law and no man is below it.” But here is the statement that many forget that follows that phrase, “The consistent policy of the National Government, so far as it has the power, is to hold in check the unscrupulous man, whether employer or employee; but to refuse to weaken individual initiative or to hamper or cramp the industrial development of the country.” It emphasizes everyone is subject to this standard.

The concept was introduced by the Ancient Greeks including Plato and Aristotle. Aristotle used the phrase in his work, Politics in 350 BC. Like most things under the sun, it is not new.

Something else of note happened yesterday as well which is why I have included “except” in the title of this blog. After many interviews of staff and emails sent out broadly about the leak in Alito’s anti-abortion message, no one could be found guilty, but one person asked if the Supreme Court Judges were questioned about their knowledge of a leak. According to one source, they were not “because, after all, they are the Supreme Court Judges.” Another said that they were questioned, but were unsure of the degree of the interviews with them. Whoa! Hold back your horses, Nellie.” No one is above the law. Does that not include the judges themselves? Why not share their views with the public?

Why would I raise that issue? On December 8, 2022, the Reverend Robert Schenck, along with ethics and legal experts, testified before the House Judiciary Committee. It appears that a couple, Gayle and Donald Wright, were dining with Samuel Alito and his wife. The couple denied that they received information on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. The New York Times claimed that they received advanced notice of the outcome of that case from Reverend Schenck.

Schenk had a 20 years campaign he called Operation Higher Court through which he recruited wealthy donors to befriend and influence conservative justices. They shared prayer circles, private dinners, and vacations. The Democrats conducted a case study at the hearing surrounding judicial ethics. “Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. Chair of the Judiciary Committee said that, “Supreme Court justices cannot self-police their ethics and we should not expect them to.”

Schenck found it interesting that he was never sanctioned by the court for his work to hold the court accountable. In fact, Justice Thomas commended about him by saying, “Keep up what you’re doing. It’s making a difference.” It was a confusing message to me except to reflect that “we are answerable to no one and Thomas wanted to underscore that point.

Currently, the Supreme Court is accountable to no one except the outcries from the public that recent events reflect that the court has become too political. We saw this after new members of the court said that Roe V. Wade is a set precedent before they were approved and then turned around and voted against it. John Locke who shaped our Constitution said that “all contracts are sacred” including your public words or chaos will be inevitable.

Take 10 ordinary people. Show them the statements on Roe V. Wade made before the recent members were approved. Look at the nightmare that overturning Roe V. Wade has become regarding this hypocrisy. Recall Locke reminded us of what happens when the breaking of the sacred nature of contracts occur. Ask the 10 people to comment. In my opinion, the reasonable person standard would be to point out this inconsistency.

There is more and something that I taught in my ethics course that has not been mentioned enough except by Atkins in his article on the origin of “no one is above the law.” The conservative judges on the court forgot that this phrase is tied to the thinking of John Locke that, “Every man must be guaranteed his liberty and his right to do as he likes with his property or his labor, so long as it does not infringe on the rights of others.” The woman’s body is her primary property and the downfall of Roe V. Wade has impinged on the basic rights of a woman to make decisions about her.

“No One Is Above the Law Except the Supreme Court.” Enough said!

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