Commentary

What happens when you have a beef with a judge?

July 16, 2022 10:00 am

A pro-choice activist holds up a sign during a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in response to the leaked Supreme Court draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade May 3, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

It was not in the menu, but there was a heaping helping of irony served up one evening last week at a restaurant in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was dining at Morton’s steakhouse. Demonstrators were outside, intent on ensuring he left with indigestion and not just a full belly.

At the center of this dinnertime dust-up was the right to choose interposed next to the right to chew. That is part of an ongoing debate over where such protests are appropriate.

The demonstrators oppose the Supreme Court’s recent decision ending the Constitution’s guarantee that women have a right to an abortion under certain circumstances.

That issue was front and center outside Morton’s — just as it has been in demonstrations in dozens of communities across the United States, including Iowa. People have peacefully gathered to express their views on the decision to end Roe vs. Wade’s protections for women.

Kavanaugh has been the target of many protesters, not only because he was one of the votes in favor of overturning Roe, but also because he assured us during his Senate confirmation hearing in 2018 that Roe was an important legal precedent that has been reaffirmed many times.

Whether you support the court’s recent decision or not, we should all agree peaceful demonstrations are one of the freedoms that need to be protected in the United States. Of course, it is ironic how people’s views of the appropriateness of demonstrations and picketing change as the issues change.

About the demonstration at Morton’s:

Critics of the Supreme Court’s decision jumped on the symbolism of the reaction to the encounter on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. At the same time, critics of the demonstration focused on the issue of people invading Kavanaugh’s privacy and keeping him from dining in peace.

Morton’s management criticized the “unruly behavior” of the protesters. The restaurant statement caused some supporters of the demonstrators to choke on the assertion that the rights of restaurant patrons should not be infringed upon.

“Politics, regardless of your side or views, should not trample the freedom at play of the right to congregate and eat dinner,” the restaurant said.

While some people were angered by the intrusions into the private lives of Supreme Court justices, other people mocked such concerns by using language similar to that in the Supreme Court’s decision.

Alexandra Petri, a Washington Post columnist, wrote: “The right to congregate and eat dinner is actually not to be found anywhere in the Constitution.”

But there was much more at stake than steak in the demonstration outside Morton’s.

There is that matter of people’s right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of their grievances, two foundations of the First Amendment. And there is the question of whether public officials like the justices should have to live by the same rules they set for the rest of us to follow.

This is where another helping of irony gets served up.

Some of the supporters of the Supreme Court’s abortion decision have been vocal critics of demonstrators marching in front of the justices’ homes. These critics have expressed concern for the safety of the jurists and their families. They also have said the homes of justices should be off limits so the officials can go about their lives free of harassment.

There is irony, because the Supreme Court has for many years put the large public plaza in front of its own building off-limits to demonstrators. And in the weeks leading up to the abortion ruling, the court established a much larger buffer zone around its building, with an 8-foot-tall fence to keep demonstrators farther away.

Contrast that with the Supreme Court’s past decisions in which the justices concluded that even a 35-foot-wide buffer zone around abortion clinics was an unconstitutional restriction on the First Amendment rights of abortion opponents to express their views and confront doctors and patients.

In a 1988 case, the court did uphold the constitutionality of a Wisconsin law that prohibited “targeted picketing” outside people’s houses. The issue then was protesters carrying “baby killer” signs who gathered outside the homes of doctors.

But the tables have turned now.

Then, it was people who were pro-choice who wanted targeted picketing banned. Now, it is people who are pro-life who support a ban on picketing outside homes of people like Brett Kavanaugh.

Then, it was doctors and employees of abortion clinics who feared for their safety. Now, it is judges and their families who have that fear. And both groups’ concerns are legitimate.

Through the years, several doctors and clinic employees have been murdered by pro-life zealots. Last month, a retired Wisconsin judge was killed in his home by man he had sent to prison a decade ago. Five days later, an armed man was arrested in the middle of the night outside Kavanaugh’s house.

There are other places to peacefully express our views without clogging the sidewalks in front of people’s homes, leaving occupants to fear a wacko might be in the group. That’s true whether a Supreme Court justice lives there or whether it’s an employee of an abortion clinic.

This is where common sense should come in.

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Randy Evans
Randy Evans

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a 43-year-old nonprofit education and advocacy organization that works for improved government transparency and citizen accountability. He can be reached at [email protected]

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