Week In Politics: Supreme Court Decisions

Audie Cornish talks to political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss this week's Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act and the Voting Rights Act and the future of the Senate immigration bill.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And now to our regular Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post. Hey there, E.J.

E.J. DIONNE: Hey, how are you?

CORNISH: And David Brooks of the New York Times. Hey, David.

DAVID BROOKS: How are you?

CORNISH: So we're going to talk about the other big news of the week, the Supreme Court. Now, the Court wrapped up this week with rulings on some major cases, including affirmative action, gay marriage and voting rights. And let's start with those rulings on race, particularly the Voting Rights Act. Here was the reaction from Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: They are saying, in effect, that history cannot repeat itself. But I say, come and walk in my shoes. As Justice Ginsburg described in her dissent, the history is relevant because voting rights have been given in this country and they have been taken away.

CORNISH: Now, certainly in the last two election cycles, we've heard a lot about the kind of battle about new voter laws. I don't know who want to start about sort of how significant this ruling is.

DIONNE: Well, I think John Lewis is absolutely right. I think this is one of the most outrageous rulings from this conservative majority on the court. And what - the thing that makes it outrageous is the extreme judicial activism of it. Because what you have here is the majority decision written by Chief Justice Roberts, saying that, well, really Congress' list of states covered by the Voting Rights Act is out of date. And therefore, the law should be knocked out and the Congress has to rewrite it. There's almost no constitutional reasoning in this decision as to why he got here. It's a classic legislative decision that the court made here by a 5-to-4 margin.

And I think what this shows, overall, is that while liberals may win occasional and sometimes partial victories - and we'll talk about the gay marriage decisions later - on issues directly related to political and economic power, the conservative majority on this court is going to move in a conservative direction. And this could have a real political impact, just as Bush v. Gore and Citizens United...

CORNISH: I've got to let David jump in here, E.J. David, how does this affect, you know, how is the court affecting the modern race debate?

BROOKS: Well, I guess the first thing to say, if we're going to oppose judicial activism, we've got to oppose this ruling. We've also got to oppose the DOMA ruling. They were both exquisite examples of judicial activism.

My view of the Voting Rights Act is that, first, history has changed. The list of states that are being targeted under this law is no longer where voting rights are under threat. It's a nationwide problem. So I think that is substantively a correct argument. I don't know if it's constitutional. It's correct. It's also true that registration has changed. In 1965, seven percent of African-Americans in Mississippi were registered. Now it's 90 percent - a higher percentage than whites in Mississippi. So that's changed.

And so, you know, I understand the court's ruling. And I understand why they want to change the law to make it more modern. The problem we have is they - by throwing back the Congress, they're basically throwing it back to an institution which is not going to modernize the law. And so...

CORNISH: Of course, this is an institution that reauthorized the law in 2006 overwhelmingly bipartisan support.

BROOKS: Right, that's why I think it's an act of judicial activism to overturn it. And why I'm disturbed by the activism, I guess, in both of these cases. But the idea that Congress is going to act, I think, to modernize the law and to make it national, and to allow the preclearance - which we do need - that's just not going to happen. And so, the court has really thrown us into a limbo and I guess, on balance, on just practical grounds, and on activism grounds, I wish they hadn't done it.

CORNISH: I want to jump on something you said there, David, about states. Because it does seem like with this case and with the Federal Defense of Marriage Act ruling, that states kind of had a win, right, this week in terms of these rulings?

BROOKS: Especially with the DOMA case and that seems to be blindly obvious. States get to decide who's married. And if states get to decide who's married, it seems to me just ridiculous the federal government can decide to overrule that definition, and assign how they're going to assign benefits. And so, this - for those of us who believe in federalism, at least at some level, I guess this was a good ruling.

CORNISH: E.J., when it comes to gay marriage, are we going to spend the next 10 election cycles debating this state-by-state, with each ballot initiative?

DIONNE: Well, I think what this ruling really showed is that there is a deep trend in the society in favor of gay marriage, and it's not going to reverse itself. What was really striking in the DOMA case is that Justice Anthony Kennedy has been moving very steadily, over the years, toward greater sympathy for gay and lesbian rights.

And, in doing that, he is really matching the larger American public. And so we will keep deciding gay marriage state-by-state through the political process. But I think, inevitably, given the overwhelming support for it among younger Americans, it'll become law in more and more places.

CORNISH: Now, in the midst of all this, it might have been easy to miss it. After years of being criticized for inaction, the Senate actually passed some legislation. Right? Most notably, in comprehensive immigration, overall.

But here's the thing. Does it even matter, given that the House is not interested in taking it up?

BROOKS: You know, I have thought - first of all, it was a good majority. It wasn't quite 70 votes in the Senate, but it was a good majority, a bipartisan majority in the Senate. I had thought going in the last week or so that it's 50-50 in the House. Now, I've read a bunch of good analysis of how many Republicans really been rejecting toward their leadership, how many Republicans are unlikely to vote for this.

I think now you have to assume there's a 70 percent chance this thing will go down and we will not have immigration reform. And, by the way, the Republican Party will be committing an act of suicide.

CORNISH: Well, so how do you really feel, David? E.J.?

DIONNE: I think, for that very reason - because I agree that this would be a politically foolish act on the part of the Republicans to kill it - that's why I think it has a chance. I think there are a lot of Republicans who may want to vote against it because of their districts, but who want to pass it partly for political reasons, partly because business is for it. And, as last I checked, Republicans are pretty responsive to business. And also because a lot of Evangelical Christians have come out in strong support of immigration reform, so I think there's a real tension in the Republican Party between business and some of the religious voices on the one side and a more nativist(ph), if you will, constituency on the other.

CORNISH: But is this a case where some Senate Republicans maybe sort of overplayed their hand? I mean, you know, you have the same characters from past immigration battles, Senator McCain and Senator Lindsey, talking about - well, this is the time - and, I mean, was it ever really the time?

BROOKS: You know, if you look at the underlying structure, even in the Senate, it looks a lot like the last time they took this up six or seven years ago, so I'm not sure the underlying politics of this have changed, which explains my pessimism.

DIONNE: The underlying politics changed enough to get it through the Senate, which it didn't get through the last time, which I think is a big deal. And this really is a compromise bill. This is not some radical bill. There were a lot of things in there that more conservative senators asked for, including that enormous fund doubling agents at the border. I'm not sure that's a great idea, was worth having to pass the bill, so I don't think this is overreach on their part. I think those guys have always cared about immigration reform.

CORNISH: Though, hearing from the House this week, one of the things they said is we are going to pass legislation. We're just going to pass our own.

BROOKS: Yeah. They're talking about breaking it up into little pieces. The question is - it's really within the mind of the Republican members of Congress. A lot of them hate it, but do they hate it enough to totally block it or do they hate it just enough so they want to vote against it, but they'll allow it to go through with a no vote?

DIONNE: And do they get a bill passed so they can go to conference with the Senate? And can that conference produce a bill that goes to the floor? The catch is that a bill that would garner a majority of Republicans could not garner a majority of Democrats and the other way around. So, in the end, I think if it's a substantive bill that's at all like the Senate's, it's going to have to pass with more Democratic votes than Republican votes.

BROOKS: The conservative media is surprisingly against this. It used to be the conservative intellectual class was very pro-immigration. Amazingly, that's no longer true.

CORNISH: Well, we'll have to leave it at that. David Brooks of the New York Times, thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

CORNISH: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, thank you.

DIONNE: And thank you.

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