Civility and Justice.

Yesterday, as I was driving from work to tutoring, radio tuned (as nearly always) to NPR, I heard an All Things Considered story about the current Supreme Court consideration of the standard for deportation and the definition of “aggravated felony.” “At issue,” explains the program’s website, “is not whether someone should be deported for committing a felony, but whether states may set a tougher standard for staying in the United States than does the federal government, which has the power to regulate immigration.” In one example given in the story (pardon the lack of citation, I can’t find this case on the internets), a Trinidadian grandmother who came to the U.S. when she was 11 was convicted of simple marijuana possession under state law, which considers such possession a felony. The same charge, under federal law, is a misdemeanor. Because she now has a felony on her record, she is facing deportation; the case before the Supreme Court will determine whether Grandma can stay in the U.S.

What struck me about this story, besides the patent stupidity of attempting to label simple possession an aggravated felony in order to deport legal residents, was this statement by (our favorite!) Antonin Scalia:

“the doctrine of standing is more than an exercise in the conceivable. … Nobody thinks your client is really, you know, abstaining from tequila down in Mexico because he is on supervised release in the United States.” [PDF]

Exsqueeze me? Tequila? Come again?

I can’t say I was shocked to hear such dismissive rhetoric from Scalia; he’s not known for politeness, after all. But I was surprised by the near-absence of reaction in the media today. When did this kind of offensive language by officials in our judiciary become acceptable, and what does that mean for justice in the United States?

Dahlia Lithwick, in Slate, approaches this discussion.

The more interesting question is about Scalia’s deliberate carelessness with language, his sense that he is somehow above the sorts of linguistic delicacy the rest of us expect in our dealings with others. Indeed, he seems to think it’s his obligation to be ever more reckless with his words, perhaps because he’s about the only guy left who faces no consequences for his rhetorical body-slams.

When Virginia Senator George Allen referred to a young man as “macaca,” and said “welcome to America,” the media called him on his hateful speech. It appears that Scalia escapes the same sort of attention, perhaps because there is no campaign being run against him, and therefore no one who will benefit directly and immediately from his censure.

The backlash against “politically correct” language has created an atmosphere in which some people delight in saying things to offend. When those people are comedians, it may be funny or not, but in the end it doesn’t matter too much. When judges engage in such blithe disregard for the feelings of others, however, there’s good cause for concern. How are we to be confident that this disregard doesn’t extend to their policy-making? In Scalia’s case, I certainly don’t see a ready distinction between his words and his actions.

*Update: CNN is deliberately undermining me, dammit.


21 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    MonkeyGurrl said,

    Not that it has anything to do with anything, but I find it annoying when reports characterize the subject as a “female” whatever, or “grandmother”. As if being female or capable of breeding prevents someone from participating in certain behaviors. However, just as classification as a “female firefighter” is, at best, troublesome(as if firefighters are not normally female), so is mentioning the Trinidadian familial situation. Like, Grandmas can’t get their toke on too?!

    Otherwise, I agree with you wholeheartedly and with gusto.

  2. 2

    […] A Bird’s Nest has some additional analysis. […]

  3. 3

    uccellina said,

    Monkeygurrl – It was intended to be more a reference to her age and the length of time she had lived in the U.S. as opposed to in Trinidad, but point taken and I agree.

  4. 4

    Mom said,

    Actually, the Trinidadian (or Mexican) context is important because it suggests the possibility that officials act more aggressively towards persons of certain origins. Do you think that a marijuana-smoking Swede, for example, is likely to be deported?

  5. 5

    A said,

    Mom: only if she’s gay

  6. 6

    Writer2 said,

    I’ve always thought that the concern of late decrying “political correctness” is basically a lament by reactionaries that they cannot freely engage in hateful speech without someone reminding them that they are, in fact, being hateful.

    Nice call on Scalia. What’s really worrying about him is that the Supreme Court members used to refrain from making any public statements and speeches at all, and that the lamguage of their decision-making used to be couched in at least the semblance of lofty legalese. Here’s a guy who revels in maing a spectacle of himself, and it’s now done in the midst of a poltiical culture in DC in which stupidity and steroetyping are seen as basic virtues of manly communication.

  7. 7

    Writer2 said,

    I’ve always thought that the concern of late decrying “political correctness” is basically a lament by reactionaries that they cannot freely engage in hateful speech without someone reminding them that they are, in fact, being hateful.

    Nice call on Scalia. What’s really worrying about him is that the Supreme Court justices used to refrain from making any public statements and speeches at all, and that the language of their decision-making used to be couched in at least the semblance of lofty legalese. Here’s a guy who revels in making a spectacle of himself, and it’s now done in the midst of a poltiical culture in DC in which stupidity and steroetyping are seen as basic virtues of manly communication.

  8. 8

    JasonColeman said,

    LOL, “offensive language” you say? To whom? Certainly not Mexico or Mexicans, Tequila is a Mexican national treasure, one of their largest imports and for agave flavored beverages to be considered Tequila under Mexico’s version of German Purity Laws for Beer, the agave must be grown in Mexico and the liquor should be produced in Jalisco, specifically, the region around Tequila, Mexico.

    To try and suggest that Scalia is insulting Mexico by associating Mexico with their National treasure is ridiculous.

    Would you have the same outrage if someone associated Scotch with Scotland?


  9. 9

    uccellina said,


    If Scots were a major immigrant group into the United States, and their immigration were the subject of violent controversy, and Scottish people regularly faced prejudice and discrimination as a class in the U.S., and Scalia had made the reference in the context of deciding whether a Scottish petitioner had legal standing to appeal his case – in other words, if your specious analogy were in any way actually similar to the situation at hand, then yes, I would still be outraged.

  10. 10

    JasonColeman said,

    What does immigration have to do with a felon on supervised release going to Mexico and violating his supervision agreement? Answer, NOTHING.

    Or are you suggesting that the SCOTUS make current political situations and rhetoric superceed the rational interpretation of law. If you are suggesting that, I’d suggest that if that were to occur, your side of the aisle would be in for a world of hurt.

    Historically, the Scots are a major immigrant group in the United States BTW, and their arrival was not always met with open arms. To disassociate Scotch with Scotland would be just as offensive as suggesting we disassociate Mexico’s national treasure with Mexico.

    I still fail to see where recognizing what the Mexican people and government want you to recognize, that Tequila is a national treasure of Mexico and that Mexico and Tequila should be associated together, should be cause for outrage or offense.

    I think you’re stretching to find any excuse to trash someone and are using using unrelated issues to create false “offense”.

    If Mexico wants to be associated with Tequila, which they DO, it seems more sensitive to recognize that, not less sensitive.

    So is Sake being associated with Japan, offensive to you? How bout Madras cloth with India? Beer with Germany, or nesting dolls with Russia?

    Tequila is Mexico’s national treasure folks. It’s offensive, to suggest that Tequila should not be associated with Mexico, to Mexicans.

    Immigration or perceived discrimination is immaterial.


  11. 11

    mom said,

    The issue is not whether the Mexicans consider tequila to be a national treasure or whether the Scots like Scotch. The issue is one of discrimination expressed through stereotypes. Scalia’s words conjure an image of a drunken Mexican sitting propped up against a tavern wall with an empty tequila bottle at his side.

    Were the Scots in America to be portrayed as the Irish used to be – as drunken louts addicted to poteen – the Scots would rightly be angry at the association of their national treasure – single malt Scotch – being evoked in such a context. They would be even more angry at the cartoonish imagery used to suggest a national characteristic. Context, context, context.

  12. 12

    uccellina said,

    It’s not immaterial at all, because law is not made in a cultural or historical vacuum. My point is neither that Tequila does not come from Mexico, nor that it isn’t an important factor in the Mexican export economy, but that it is being used in this context to trivialize the argument about legal standing.

    I don’t think I’m the one raising “immaterial” issues in this discussion.

  13. 13

    JasonColeman said,

    Excuse me? Tequila was used to “trivialize the argument about legal standing”? How so, Scalia’s point was that the individual could not be supervised from using alcohol while in Mexico.

    The PREDOMINATE distilled beverage in Mexico is Tequila. Scalia didn’t trivialize anything, in fact, he focused it specifically on the the supervision clause of the criminals release.

    As for how Scots were stereotyped, perhaps you don’t see from your lofty perches that the Scotsman is one of the origins of the term Redneck, who common stereotype held that you couldn’t leave them alone to work because they’d run off to make a still.

    You’re all still hyperventillating and over-reacting to Scalia’s statement. None of you have mentioned that Roberts as well mentioned the problem of the released felon consuming alcohol in Mexico. Scalia only replaced the term alcohol with Tequila, which is BY FAR the most consumed and most available distilled spirit in our Southern neighbors boundary.

    Scalia associated Tequila EXACTLY the way that the Mexican government and the Mexican people want Tequila to be associated. In Mexico, Tequila is synonymous with alcohol.

    Seriously, just admit that you have a profound problem with Scalia and drop the phony outrage about him mentioning alcohol in exactly the same way that the Mexican culture wants it to be associated in Mexico, with their national treasure Tequila.

    Admit that you’re just looking for some excuse to bash on Scalia and be done with it, I could care less if you hate the man or not, but trying to make an issue out of this is stupid, irresponsible and very very insulting to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.

    Jason Fernandez Coleman

  14. 14

    uccellina said,

    Jason – Again, Scalia chose to use the specific name of a drink identified with a nationality in order to ridicule a serious argument. Remember the title of the post – we’re talking about word choice, what it implies, and what it signifies more broadly for our legal process and social justice.

    I don’t need an excuse to “bash on” Scalia. He’s given me plenty to work with.

    As to whether my position is offensive to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, Carlos Ortiz, the former President of the Hispanic Bar Association, said of Scalia’s remark, “Justice Scalia is supposed to be very smart, but anyone who is supposed to be so smart would not and should not say something that insensitive. It is a really terrible comment, and he should be called on it.”

  15. 15

    JasonColeman said,

    WRONG, he chose a unique distilled spirit, not a “drink” to associate with a COUNTRY, not a nationality.

    So now you’re going to insult Mexico’s historically unique national treasure too?

    I know you’d love it to be associated with a nationality, but that’s not the case, he associated it with a COUNTRY. A country which is VERY VERY VERY proud of Tequila and has absolutely NO problem with the association. In fact Mexico spends millions promoting that very association.

    Keep trying to squirm out of this, you can’t, you’re simply wrong, and continuing to mischaracterize what was said and create faux outrage is FAR more offensive to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans than if he even had associate it with a nationality (which he most certainly DID NOT, no matter what sort of distorted lens you look at the world through).

    As for Ortiz, have you looked all day for that quote, it’s a nice manufacture, care to put Ortiz to the test and see if he’s an objective observer on Scalia, I think you’d be smart to decline on that one.

    Once again, try as you might to spin this, Scalia DID not associate this with a nationality, he associated it with a country, a country that happens to promote, and appreciate that association a great deal. Especially around Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico.

    You may choose to identify Mexicans with tequila, but I dont’, and neither did Scalia, but we both, and millions of millions of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are very proud to associate Tequila with Mexico.

    The very fact that you can’t differentiate the Nation with the Nationality shows just how perverted your world view, and particularly your view of Mexico is.

    If there’s a bigot in this discussion, I think it’s obvious it’s not me or Scalia. Seriously, did you think you could get away with that absurd “identified it with a nationality” line. You exposed yourself right there.

    Give up, apologize to Mexicans, and recognize that Mexico as a nation, not a nationality is proud of it’s historically unique national treasure.

    –Jason Fernandez Coleman

    PS Thank you for proving me completely right that this is about your predisposition to hate Scalia and apparently also Mexicans, for you couldn’t possibly make that leap to “nationality” with out a predisposed negative attitude toward Mexicans.


  16. 17

    Annika said,

    When I see you tonight, I will be bitterly disappointed if you are not stretching, hyperventillating, squirming, spinning, and exposing yourself.

  17. 18

    uccellina said,

    I have no idea what you mean, Annika, but I promise to do my best. I can certainly bring along my drop spindle to cover the spinning part.

  18. 19

    Annika said,

    Great! I’ll be at the bar, enjoying a glass of MEXICO’S UNIQUE NATIONAL TREASURE.

  19. 20

    JasonColeman said,

    Moderation or banning is fine by me, do what you wish, it’s your blog.

    I commend you for letting the comments remain without scrubbing them, regardless of our disagreement.

    Future readers can judge for themselves.


  20. 21

    A said,

    Readers have judged, Jason.

    As always, U, thoughtful and thought provoking. Well done.

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