Federalism is a cornerstone of our constitutional system. Every violation of state sovereignty by Federal officials is not merely a transgression of one unit of government against another; it is an assault on the liberties of individual Americans. (2016 GOP Platform)
In a stunning moment on the Senate floor, Sen. Elizabeth Warren clashed with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Tuesday night after McConnell determined the Massachusetts Democrat had violated a Senate rule against impugning another senator. In an extremely rare rebuke, she was instructed by the presiding officer to take her seat. Tuesday night’s rule means Warren will be barred from speaking on the floor until Sessions’ debate ends, McConnell’s office confirmed. (Warren cut off during Sessions debate)
On matters of moral and political principle, and on almost every critical policy issue I can recollect, I stand diametrically opposed to Senator Elizabeth Warren. But I felt outrage when I read the above quoted report. I felt outrage because Senator Mitch McConnell prevented the duly elected representative of the State of Massachusetts from freely speaking as such. I felt outrage that any Senator would be barred from exercising freedom of speech during formal debate, in order to offer relevant evidence in support of her position on the Sessions nomination, or any other issue. Especially when speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate, U.S. Senators do not speak as individuals. They speak for the governments and people of the States they respectively represent.
It ought to go without saying that they must do so in accordance with their own conscientious assessment of what the good of their State, and the United States requires. Now, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution states that “No state shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.” When her speech was cut off, Senator Warren was reading into the record a 1986 letter, relevant to this Constitutional requirement. In it Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, expressed her opposition to Sessions nomination to be a Federal judge. In it King said:
I write to express my sincere opposition to the confirmation of Jefferson B. Sessions as a federal district court judge for the Southern District of Alabama. My professional and personal roots in Alabama are deep and lasting. Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.
I would not presume to dispute the fact that this letter communicated Coretta King’s sincerely held views. Given the checkered reality of our country’s history with respect to racial attitudes and relations, (particularly in states where racial discrimination and segregation were once enforced by law) I would not presume to impugn her motives for writing as she did. But as a Christian, who believes people can and should repent, I also believe that when good fruit proves their repentance to be sincere, they should be forgiven. Accordingly, the proper answer to Coretta Scott King’s letter is not to silence Elizabeth Warren’s effort to use it as evidence for her views of Senator Session’s record. It is to answer her speech with evidence that, as Attorney General, Senator Sessions will fulfill the Constitution’s demand that no person be denied “the equal protection of the law.”
This is a reasonable thing to expect from the person who will, if confirmed, be responsible for overseeing, the Federal government’s law enforcement activities, on the President’s behalf. I respect Coretta King’s sincerity. But I also respect sincere testimony from others that, like our people as a whole, Senator Sessions has risen to the challenge of our nation’s now broadly accepted determination to make the ideal of equal justice for all a reality. That’s among the reasons I support confirming him as Attorney General.
But the action of the GOP majority in this instance is like a high-handed ruling from the bench in a court of law, to prevent testimony about conduct that bears on the issue being tried. It is an act of Party tyranny; no more acceptable than the judicial tyranny the vast majority of GOP’s constituents deplore. Moreover, it shows little respect for Senator Sessions’ judgment, courage and good faith in allowing himself to be nominated for the position of Attorney General. He knew that his record would be discussed and examined, in light of the Constitution’s relevant requirements. He did not shrink from the test.
From what I know of him, he must deplore his colleague’s no doubt well-meant but truly misguided attempts to suppress criticism, rather than frankly rebut it. Otherwise, we would have to fear that, as Attorney General, he would seek to suppress dissenting speech, by force of law, instead of defending the freedom of speech, while competently rebutting its content, as appropriate. I would not be surprised to see him speak out, on Constitutional grounds, against suppressing one of the voices the people of Massachusetts have chosen to speak for their state in Congress.
The Constitution so values this freedom of speech that it says plainly that “Senators and Representatives shall…in all cases, except treason, felony and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective Houses, …; and for any speech or debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other place.” Surely this constraint includes arresting, in mid-course, any speech on the floor of the U.S Senate, simply because it cites testimony contrary to the passionate views of the majority.
Such majority tyranny, enacted to suppress the duly authorized voice of any State, is an egregious and damaging blow against federalism. Moreover, if the representatives of the states, in Congress assembled, do not have the freedom to cite in debate, relevant testimony supportive of their views, doesn’t this contravention of their freedom also portend the very “assault on the liberties of individual Americans”, the GOP’s 2017 platform decries? Doesn’t it exemplify the politically stultifying culture of “political correctness”, extending it into the very heart of political deliberations on which the whole safety, welfare and integrity of our self-government as a people depends?
The GOP’s Senate leadership should have let Warren speak. It is for the people of Massachusetts to silence her voice in the Senate, if they will. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate should display the self-disciplined restraint so many Americans have had to show throughout our history. Their sacrifices in this country’s battles proved their dedication to the often-repeated sentiment rightly expressed with the words: I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your freedom to say it. During his service in the U.S. Armed Forces, my own father did so, in WWII and during the Korean War. He put his life on the line, for a country in which the nation’s laws still spoke in wrongful derogation of his God-endowed human worth. Is our nation’s government now so crippled by partisan passion that those in Congress, sworn to the goal of securing the blessings of liberty, no longer have the self-possession liberty requires? Pray God this is not so; and that the U.S. Senate’s leadership will reverse the action by which they have called for action that suggests that it is.