April 12, 2012

Regarding E.J. Dionne Jr.’s April 9 column, “Standing his ground”:

Mr. Dionne wrote that, when “judicial activism” enters our public discourse, yakkers left and right alike forget an essential feature of such activism in our history. During the Gilded Age, as during the New Deal, “conservative Supreme Court majorities . . . nullified progressive laws aimed at regulating the economy and expanding the rights of workers and consumers.” That was right, as far as he went. But the first and worst-used victims of judicial activism by the court during the Gilded Age, which Mark Twain called the “Great Barbecue,” were the intended beneficiaries of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments: freedmen. The court gutted Reconstruction. We overthrew one bit of judicial activism, the Dred Scott decision, at a cost of 600,000 killed in the Civil War, for this?

Mr. Dionne also wrote that Franklin D. Roosevelt “won the larger battle over the right of the democratic branches of government to legislate on behalf of the common good.” A note on legal terminology: Neither government nor its branches hold rights. People may hold rights against government. What government wields toward people — or doesn’t wield, as the cases may be — is powers.

Patrick Judd Murray, Washington