The two big things wrong with politics

I tried for a good ten minutes to find a title that briefly and succinctly describes our broken political reality without using any type of expletive; I failed. It goes without saying that, particularly at the national level, the red-versus-blue tribal mentality of the day is extraordinarily awful. I’ve been trying to figure out the underlying causes for a couple years now, and think I have finally zeroed in on two central ailments.

The first is an adulteration of sincere information, which runs hand-in-hand with the demonization of views that challenge one’s own. This, in my opinion, has by far the most deleterious consequences.

As I have noted repeatedly in a somewhat jovial manner, the degradation of the consumption of “healthy” information has been somewhat rapid in this state. Newspapers are shriveling, news radio stations are shuttering and local television news has largely been reduced to 30 minutes of shooting coverages and cats of the week. Make no mistake, this is not because of a lack of competent journalists in all mediums. It is because the average Texan — indeed, American — is far more comfortable getting his “news” from the television monitors at a gas station than in something he actually has to read. I purposefully say he because the problem is significantly worse with men.

However, apart from apathy on the part of the average citizen, many political inclined individuals have moved away from the fair arbiters of newspapers and other unbiased news sources. Fox News and MSNBC are rather trite examples, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. Many blogs allow partisans to create a completely alternate universe where their fantasies can become reality –ever so briefly. For a liberal in Austin who got 100% of her politics from Burnt Orange Report or Addicting Info, perhaps there could have been genuine shock to the utter shellacking that Wendy Davis and the Democratic slate received in Texas last year.

However, to cast this issue as equally bad on both sides would be monstrously disingenuous. When it comes to blogs and other online sources that spin the truth or just make stuff up, nobody even comes close to the Tea Party. I’m friends on Facebook with a few rabble-rousers within those organizations, and I see no shortage of evocative headlines from sketchy sources littering their timeline. They are the political equivalent of the National Enquirer, though that would probably be an insult to the Enquirer for the 5% of stuff they don’t make up.

Take this recent article from “Next Generation Patriots” about a supposed report linking Hillary Clinton to the Benghazi terrorist attack once and for all. Nevermind that even the Republican committee that orchestrated the investigations have cleared the administration. This is a BOMBSHELL REPORT! Sadly, all too many people believe this drek, because somehow they have been deluded into thinking that these uber-partisan online tabloids are more reliable than actual newspapers. I am baffled and speechless.

Similarly, I saw a Facebook friend share this nearly year-old post from “America’s Freedom Fighters,” which alleges that the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the American government. At this point, I’m really at a loss for words. Are the authors of these sites actually delusional, like in a clinical way? Or do they just sit around a big room thinking of provocative things to completely lie about? And yet, individuals heavily involved in Tea Party causes, the 1% of the political process in this state, actually believe them and are influenced by them.

The decline of the information process has a companion in the elimination of robust opinion journalism. In my view, the harmful effects are comparable. We have become a nation of echo chamber dwelling simpletons, who become offended by anything that challenges our own preconceived notions.

For example, since the summer, I have served on the editorial board of The Daily Texan (one of the top 10 largest newspapers in the state), also serving as an editor for the opinion/editorial section. I like to think that the Texan runs our editorial content the way a reputable publication should. For the three semesters I have sat on the editorial board, our consensus opinion has been somewhat left-of-center, but we have always gone to lengths to ensure we have a plethora of conservative voices as columnists.

Sadly, few appear to appreciate this dedication to diversity in the editorial pages. The columns chock-full of liberal talking points get spread far-and-wide by like-minded individuals and groups; same for the conservative talking points. The few times I have shared columns that I disagreed with, but were particularly thought-provoking nonetheless, I faced nothing but derision by the “Tea Party Democrats” who incessantly accused me of being some type of horrendous political traitor who should be ashamed of myself.

Opinion content is not about validating all of your existent beliefs. Rather, it is about challenging your conventions. I have always been raised to believe if you cannot defend your views and positions against criticism and derision, they weren’t very good beliefs to begin with. With politics, that is especially true.

I subscribe to three magazines: The Atlantic, The Economist and Texas Monthly. If I had extra time and money, there would likely be others on that list, but those three in particular have always struck me as understanding how opinion content should work. They are unafraid to taking bold, new positions, and they defend these points with logic and reason remarkably well.

Particularly with the Economist, I found myself Freshman year of college disagreeing with a great deal of its content. The sophomoric juvenile in me wanted to just stop reading and retreat to the trite, backwards leftism of The Nation or Mother Jones —but the adult kept on reading. After a semester or two, two major developments had occurred in my political thought process. First, I had gotten a lot better at defending my tried-and-true liberal positions in the face of unwavering criticism. For example, the Economist is thoroughly skeptical of affirmative action, a program that I have always greatly supported. I like to think my defense of that position has been made more competent.

Second, and perhaps most important, some of my lousier political positions changed. Most notably, when I was in high school, I was a paleoliberal on topics such as free trade and protectionism. I opposed NAFTA. I favored silly, outdated things like tariffs and foolishly thought that such a course of action — say, by heavily taxing Japanese automobile imports —  could do things like pay down our deficit and assist in economic prosperity.

The more I did research inspired by those articles, the more I realized that free trade — arguably the Economist’s biggest trademark — is not an inherently bad idea. My introduction to economics class at Brandeis — a “saltwater school” in Boston, not a “freshwater school” in Chicago — corroborated this, and that was that.

Sadly, few people use opinion-based political content for such reasons anymore. All too often, it’s just used as a way to support what one already believes. Anything with which one disagrees with is immediately labeled heresy or worse.

The second, and admittedly probably less important, problem plaguing our political system is a total elimination of respect for authority. Let me clarify: I do not mean blind allegiance to one’s government or jingoistic patriotism or the like. Instead, I mean respecting the opinions of experts in their pertinent fields.

The most egregious example of this, in my opinion, is the Tea Party total adulteration of the word “constitutional.” In their topsy-turvy world, the constitution has taken on this divine power in which it is revered as a truly perfect piece of literature. “Look to the constitution” is the cliche that is the answer to nearly every single political quandary, much how “look to the Bible” is the trite retort for a proselytizing fundamentalist.

First, it goes without saying that the constitution is far from perfect (3/5ths compromise, anyone?), but the real issue is a fundamental misunderstanding of how we adjudicate disputes about the nation’s founding charter: the court system.

Even otherwise reasonable conservatives fall into this trap, quickly calling Obamacare some type of “unconstitutional” trainwreck. Most criticisms fall within the realm of one’s opinion, but the constitutionality of a law is not one of them. The Supreme Court explicitly upheld the crux of Obamacare’s constitutionality in 2012. By definition, that means it’s constitutional. I would say you’re supposed to learn about stuff like judicial review in the 11th grade, but the Oklahoma Legislature is definitely doing their best to prevent that.

The Tea Party, egged-on by those aforementioned political tabloids, has taken it upon themselves to usurp the judicial system’s authority to call something constitutional. To a lesser extent, the left has done this as well. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a Democrat insist the campaign finance restrictions struck down in Citizens United were indeed “constitutional,” I could’ve bought an extra Dr Pepper at lunch today. You might disagree with the decision (I do), but, by definition, it’s not constitutional. My father, an attorney, made a point of teaching me that lesson in 2008 after the District of Columbia v. Heller case. If 14 year-old Noah can understand, you can too!

Sadly, the distrust of lawyers on legal matters is not the only example of such willful ignorance. Teachers have lost their ability to teach children without criticism and, of course, doctors and other medical professionals are accused of not knowing better than parents on medical knowledge. This was recently exemplified by the recent brouhaha over vaccines.

These deleterious beliefs of one’s superiority over everyone and anyone — no matter how knowledgeable or qualified on pertinent issues — have penetrated even ostensibly professional quarters of our society. I recently found Greg Groogan, a reporter for the local Fox affiliate, promulgating that exact type of hooey, specifically on the vaccine issue. (If you want to have some fun, check out the succeeding conversation on Twitter. I called him out, and he went off on me in especially sanctimonious and patronizing way. This, from someone who just straight-up fabricated stuff during the last mayoral election.)

This was a little more longwinded than I was going for, but those are what I believe to be the two most harmful impediments to a functional political system that we currently face. I fully admit I have broken these rules myself on a variety of occasions, but I have recently been trying my best to follow them.

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Supreme decision

The New York Times reports that the US Supreme Court has agreed to hear a set of legal challenges to states’ bans on performing or recognizing gay marriage. The decision reversed a trend of the court from earlier this term of letting these cases stand at the lower level. The difference this time was that the Court of Appeals in this specific case, the Sixth Circuit (MI, OH, KY, TN) recently upheld the constitutionality of the bans, thus creating a split at the appellate level.  The case will examine two basic questions. First, may a state ban gay marriage? Second, may a state refuse to recognize valid gay marriages performed in other states?

Most commentators expect the court to strike down the laws, thus bringing gay marriage nationwide (thus Texas). Two years ago, in the case Hollingsworth v. Perry, the court specifically punted on the issue and found the intervenor-plaintiffs lacking standing. And while Windsor v. United States, which struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, largely relied upon federalism, it has been used as the primary vehicle for lower courts to strike down bans on constitutional grounds.

Last year, a District Court Judge in San Antonio struck down Texas’ ban on gay marriage, and a bipartisan panel of the 5th Circuit recently heard that challenge –and appeared willing to uphold that decision. Texas Monthly has a truly great article on that. Accordingly, even though gay marriage may very likely come nationwide by the end of June, it could come to Texas even before then.

Prognosticating on Supreme Court decisions is truly a fool’s errand. But just to be silly, I tend to think that the case will be 6-3, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the four liberals. Kennedy’s reasoning in Windsor would just be contradicted at a very basic level if he upheld bans. And Roberts, obsessed as he is with the court’s reputation, simply could not be in the dissent.

Every Governor in the Sixth Circuit is praying tonight that their state’s case is not selected, thus enshrining their name for posterity as the Ferguson, the Board of Education of Topeka, the Heart of Atlanta Motel for this generation.

This case, be it Obergefell v. Hodges, Tanco v. Haslam, DeBoer v. Snyder or Bourke v. Beshear, will go down in history as one of the preeminent civil rights cases of our time. I say bring it on!

The Panetti execution

On Wednesday, Texas plans on executing a man named Scott Panetti. The underlying details of the capital murder in question have been delineated sufficiently previously, namely in an editorial I recently participated in for The Daily Texan, in which the editorial board not only argued for clemency in his case but for the abolition of the death penalty in general (something Texpatriate did last August). The basics are that Panetti, who murdered two people in the early 1990s, is severely mentally ill, to the extent that no reasonable medical professional could certify him as competent for execution under the standard set by the Supreme Court in the 2007 case of Panetti v. Quarterman.

And yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, Texas is soldiering on with the execution nonetheless. His attorneys, after reading about the tentative December 3rd execution date in the newspaper, quickly appealed up the ladder of the Texas appellate system. On Wednesday, the Court of Criminal Appeals (the highest criminal court in the state) ruled 5-4 against granting a stay of execution. The per curiam decision, however, did included the concurrence of the court’s lone ostensible Democrat, Judge Larry Meyers. As I noted in May, I’m not really a fan of Meyers, and there are plenty of Republicans on the court I like far more than him. They include Judge Elsa Alcaca, who wrote a blistering dissent, as well as Judge Tom Price, who wrote an individual opinion calling for the abolition of the death penalty.

Price, first elected in 1996, chose not to run for a fourth six-year term this year and will leave office in January. In his bombastic six page dissent, which you can find at this link, he explained in careful detail both his steadfast opposition to Panetti’s execution as well as to capital punishment altogether. One by one, Price dismantled the arguments for the death penalty, before chronicling his own personal journey. It is all eerily reminiscent of Justice Harry Blackmun’s big change of heart in the 1990s. Like Blackmun, Price will no longer “tinker with the machinery of death.” It’s a shame he won’t be on the court much longer, although it makes senses; no death penalty opponent could survive a statewide Republican primary.

Today, as the Texas Tribune reports, the Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to deny Panetti any type of commutation, clemency or reprieve. The only other state recourse would be one 30 day delay by Governor Rick Perry, which appears rather unlikely. Accordingly, Panetti’s lawyers have appealed the case to the US Supreme Court. Who knows what the Supreme Court will do, but the odds are placed squarely against Panetti in this instance.

This case, like most every other capital murder case, involves a totally reprehensible crime. Panetti brutally murdered two people. And while he is severely mentally ill, he is not so delusional that he literally does not understand the distinction between right and wrong. He understands, to some extent, that he erred in killing two innocent people.

All this is to say that I do not want him to spend any of his days as a free man. But the Supreme Court has held for many decades that a higher standard exists for capital punishment. And while I believe the barbaric punishment to be, in all cases, cruel and unusual, even tepid proponents should see that the execution of Panetti is wrong.

Supreme Court blocks HB2

The US Supreme Court has ruled in emergency fashion that invaluable components of HB2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill that Wendy Davis famously filibustered, may be stayed until appeal. Specifically, a provision that required all clinics to adhere to the standards of ambulatory surgical centers was put on hold, as was another in part. The provision that requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital was set aside specifically for clinics in McAllen and El Paso, though not the rest of the State.

The ruling was 6-3, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the four liberals. The three arch-conservatives, meanwhile, dissented from the order. As most will remember, a Federal Judge struck down these provisions a couple months back, but a Federal Appeals Court lifted the stay while it considered the appeal. The Supreme Court today merely reapplied the stay of the Federal District Judge in Austin who originally ruled the law unconstitutional, Lee Yeakel. Last year, Yeakel also ruled other provisions of the law unconstitutional, in a suit that similarly was reversed by the Appeals Court, although the Supreme Court pointedly chose not to reapply the stay in that case.

The implications here are, in a word, huge. As noted above, the Court has decidedly not stayed previous decisions, often 5-4 and along party lines. The two moderate conservatives on the Court, Roberts and Kennedy, have for some reason decided to shift views on the topic. Perhaps it is because the full effect of the case would reduce the number of clinics in Texas to just 5 or 6, a horrifying lower number per capita than other states included Mississippi, which has only one. Whatever the rationale, the implications of this decision are rather significant. For the first time, I am even cautiously optimistic that the law could be struck down by the Supreme Court upon final appeal (which is still likely years off).

Additionally, this development will likely take everyone’s mind off of that silly Wendy Davis ad, which has been eating up a significant portion of the 24/7 news cycle recently. As unfavorable to Davis as talking about abortion might be, I would still reckon it is leaps and bounds above the fallout over her wheelchair ad. Anyways, that’s my two-cents.

As for the clinics closed by this law, they can now re-open. Sagacious followers of the press will be familiar with stories of clinics closing overnight and cancelling dozens of appointments along with it. Those clinics can now re-open and, hopefully, women can continue receiving the healthcare options they need.

Liberty & Justice for all (in these States)

The New York Times reports that the US Supreme Court has decided to not hear appeals on three separate decisions by Federal Appeals Courts to throw out state-level bans against gay marriage. A 4th Circuit ruling against Virginia, as well as a 7th Circuit ruling against Indiana & Wisconsin and a 10th Circuit ruling against Oklahoma & Utah were all left standing after the Supreme Court refused to get involved. This, after the Court had stayed all the decisions for many months. In the succeeding weeks, gay marriage will also almost certainly begin in the six other States covered by the jurisdiction of those three Appeals Courts: New Mexico, North Carolina, Kansas, South Carolina, West Virginia and Wyoming. This means that 11 States in total will have legalized gay marriage in short order, bringing the total number of States with marriage equality to 30, plus the District of Columbia.

The ruling is somewhat noteworthy, as it has struck most of the typically followers of the Court by surprise. Only four Justices, of course, are required to grant certiorari to a prospective case. What this means is that inch-by-inch approach commonly employed by the liberals-plus-Kennedy coalition on the Court needed at least one more adherent to prevent certiorari from being granted. I talked about this incremental approach a little last year, when the Court struck down most of the Defense of Marriage Act. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the closest thing to a moderate on the Court, joined with the four liberal Justices to hand a nominal victory to the proponents of LGBT rights, but they stopped far short of decreeing gay marriage nationwide –something that many pundits, including myself, so desperately wanted.

Accordingly, with these cases steadily making their way through the legal system, most assumed that the Court would be almost compelled to hear them and render a definitive up-or-down decision on the validity of state-level bans on gay marriage. They thought wrong.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, arguably the most prolific liberal on the Court, has been a particularly vocal proponent of the so-called incremental approach. She has been a somewhat active critic of the Court’s expansive ruling in Roe v. Wade, arguing it went too far too quickly and polarized the nation into incessant gridlock. On this issue, she has argued, the court should allow time for public opinion to change. And it has changed, in fact, quicker than anyone would have imagined.

Unfortunately, the court’s decision (or indecision, I suppose) did nothing to rectify the bans still present in 20 States, including Texas. Earlier this year, a Federal Judge declared Texas’ ban on gay marriage (as well as civil unions) unconstitutional, but that decision has been stayed pending appeal. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has apparently been taking their sweet time on that case, but given the extreme conservatism of that court, if there is ever an Appeals Court to affirm gay marriage bans, it would be one.

At that point, with Appellate Courts coming to opposite conclusions, the Supreme Court would almost feel compelled to step in. The four liberals, almost certainly, would want to hear the case at that time.

Without a doubt, I’m happy that the Court has decided to allow, even by omission, for marriage equality to go forward in nearly a dozen states. I just wish Texas was one of them. I think the next step will be a nationwide mandate requiring each State to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. At that point, the barriers preventing it from being performed within the State will become just too superficial to be defended.

It’s time to stop Houston City Council prayers

Most of the longtime readers of this publication will be familiar with how I, as well as everyone else affiliated with Texpatriate, first got my start in local politics. For three years throughout High School, I served with 33 other young people in an organization called the Mayor’s Youth Council. We would meet in Council chambers a few times a month, after hours, and debate the pertinent issues of the day in a way that mirrored the real City government. This included the agenda itself, complete with ordinances, pop-off debates and introductory pleasantries. These pleasantries included the pledge of allegiance and a prayer. Ostensibly, the prayer should have been non-sectarian, but given that each member of the Council would receive an opportunity to participate, many had inherently Christian messages. The very same thing happens at the Houston City Council. Of course, this is where the similarity ended.

Under the stewardship of a few people, namely Luis Fayad (the Mayor-equivalent of the MYC my first year and a current Texpatriate Editorial Board member), the prayers were removed from youth council proceedings. As you might imagine, individuals in the Mayor’s office had some fairly strong words for us as a result of our new policy. But we proceeded with it nonetheless. The world did not end because the church had to stop its influence at the town hall’s doors. In fact, the protections of religious liberty from our Constitution were made all the stronger because of it. It is past time for the Houston City Council and the Mayor to follow suit.

Ironically enough, the constitutionality of this miscarriage of justice is likely in a much stronger position today than it was in 2009 when my contemporaries first challenge the procedure. Last year, the Supreme Court held 5-4 in Town of Greece v. Galloway that a local municipality did not transgress the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment by holding sectarian prayers. However, more than a constitutional or legal point, these prayers should be done away with from a moral point of view.

Thomas Jefferson said it best that there should be “a wall of separation between Church & State.” Obviously, when a City Councilmember or the Mayor in their official capacity espouse religious rhetoric, the wall has not just been breached, but totally leveled.

One of the arguments used in Town of Greece to argue for the prayer’s illegality was that a City Council is quite different from, say, a State Legislature because of the inherent differences in the ways those bodies do business. Whereas a State Legislature simply meets and deliberates lawmaking, a City Council has tons of direct interaction with townspeople. Thus, Greece’s prayer, they argued, was directed at the entire town instead of just a pseudo-private interaction between individual lawmakers.

While the Supreme Court was not persuaded by that argument legally speaking, I still find it hard to argue against on a right/wrong level. When a City such as Houston has a Christian-themed prayer before an official meeting of its City Council, it inherently says that it is endorsing Christianity to its citizens.

Now, perhaps you would argue that there is nothing wrong with the government endorsing Christianity. Or, more expansively, merely endorsing religion over irreligion. The problem with this is that it goes against the multi-century history of this country. The faux religious influences in public life, such as “In God We Trust” on money or “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance, have not been around since time immemorial. Despite the claims of historical revisionists, both were only added in the 1950s.

Both the church and the state work immensely better when they are separated from one another. When, as Jefferson suggested, a great wall is erected between them, they can both work without outside adulterations. Stopping prayers, especially those of a sectarian nature, from occurring within the walls of City Hall would be great start.

For whatever reason, those advocating for the entanglement of church and state have always resorted to name-calling in order to demonstrate their point. I’ll likely be called Godless or Anti-Religion for espousing these points of view, when, in reality, I am neither. As a Jew, I have never subscribed to the ludicrous point of view that my religion should be thrust upon everyone else. The same should go for the belief in God or of any organized religion whatsoever. It’s an important part of my life, but it should have no place in the seat of government. It just shouldn’t.

I have attended a broad array of parochial schools in my life. St. Regis (Catholic), St. Stephen’s (Episcopalian) and Emery/Weiner (Jewish) come to mind rather immediately. All of those schools combined some element of religious classes with either mass, chapel or Jewish prayer sessions. Growing up, my Mother would often wish to pray before eating, a custom which is still mandatory among functions with my extended family. I never have had, nor do I now, any problem with any of these influences in my life. If I ever have children, I will even likely seek these religious influences out as invaluable facets of the child’s upbringing. But none of them should be in the public square. For, just as easily as my family may have had our specific religious persuasion, other family could have their own. Still others could choose to observe no religious instruction or influence. The beauty of the United States is that we are free to pursue our religious goals ourselves, independent from an encroaching, burdensome government.

As Justice Robert H. Jackson, a devout Anglican, wrote in a 1950s dissent on religious instruction during the school day: “My evangelistic brethren confuse an objection to compulsion with an objection to religion. It is possible to hold a faith with enough confidence to believe that what should be rendered to God does not need to be decided by Caesar.” And as Justice William Brennan said in his famous dissent to Marsh v. Chambers, the aforementioned case from 30 years ago that upheld legislative prayer, “If the Court had struck down legislative prayer today, it would likely have stimulated a furious reaction. But it would also, I am convinced, have invigorated both the ‘spirit of religion’ and the ‘spirit of freedom.'” Here’s for that spirit of freedom!

What’s next for HB2?

The Texas Tribune reported, last Friday, that HB2, the omnibus anti-abortion bill famously filibustered by State Senator Wendy Davis (D-Tarrant County) (who is now the Democratic gubernatorial candidate), has been struck down once more by a Federal Judge. This is somewhat old news, so I want to deal with a few pieces of the puzzle that have not been adequately covered by the mainstream press.

First, this news should ideally sound like deja vu if you have been paying attention. About 10 months ago, the same Federal Judge out of Austin –Judge Lee Yeakel (a George W. Bush nominee)– struck down other parts of the law. That ruling has since been reversed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, otherwise known as the Federal Appellate Court with jurisdiction over Texas. The most recent action in that case was a request by the law’s opponents for the entire Court, as opposed to a three-Judge panel, to consider the case. This was filed back in April, and is the most recent action taken on the case.

Accordingly, one may be confused as to how two concurrent lawsuits can be going forth on the same law. I’m glad you asked! The law was divided up into four separate provisions. The first and second provisions require inducing drugs to be taken at a clinic and require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, respectively. They took effect on September 1st of last year, and were challenged in the lawsuit from last year. The third provision, which would not have gone into effect until tomorrow, requires all clinics to adhere to the standards of ambulatory surgical centers, universally considered among pertinent professionals to be a wholly unnecessary regulation designed to drive clinics out of business. And, by all counts, it would have been.

The ASC requirement was the one challenged –and ruled unconstitutional– in the most recent court case. The fourth provision, which went into effect last year and bans abortion past the twentieth week, was never challenged.

Now, as long as we’re being realistic, it should be noted that this ruling will likely be stayed by the Fifth Circuit, much the way the previous one was. At some point in the future, the Fifth Circuit will fully overturn it. A little further down the line from that, the Supreme Court will step in, and likely consolidate the two cases, then make a ruling. It’s really anyone’s guess at that point.

As I have stated in the past, if the Supreme Court were to truly examine all the pertinent precedent in this case, the law would indubitably be going down in flames. But that simply is not a given anymore.