Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: Freedom, the rule of law, and the race to replace PM Boris Johnson

Ian Millhiser of Vox writes about the rule of law and the last term of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that abandoned the rule of law. 

I make a strong claim in this essay, arguing that the Supreme Court of the United States is no longer deciding many major cases in a way that is recognizably “legal.” So let’s start by establishing a baseline definition of what constitutes the rule of law and what it means for a judge to act consistently with this principle.

Societies that adhere to the rule of law must apply the same binding rules to all persons and institutions, including the state itself. According to the United Nations, these rules must be “publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated,” and the rule of law demands “equality before the law,” “legal certainty,” and “avoidance of arbitrariness.”

The late Justice Antonin Scalia offered one of the best explanations of how a judge can act consistently with the rule of law in a 1989 essay. “When, in writing for the majority of the Court, I adopt a general rule,” Scalia explained, “I not only constrain lower courts, I constrain myself as well.” Because “if the next case should have such different facts that my political or policy preferences regarding the outcome are quite the opposite, I will be unable to indulge those preferences.”

Scalia’s formulation captures the rule of equality before the law. If a judge applies a certain rule to Republicans, they must be comfortable applying it to Democrats as well. If they apply one rule to people who oppose abortion, they must apply the same rule to people who support abortion.

Lawyers and SCOTUS watchers: Do Scalia’s written opinions for the Court match that general philosophy?

Corey Robin of The New Yorker writes about the “self-fulfilling prophecies” of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Insiders have long known that Thomas is the right’s pacesetter on the Court, laying out positions that initially seem extreme yet eventually get adopted. For years, Thomas pulled Justice Antonin Scalia—even, on occasion, Justice Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice William Rehnquist—to the right on issues of crime and punishment. His opinions on campaign finance, once seen as recklessly deregulatory, now command a majority. In 1997, Thomas signalled his belief that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms, a fringe position that the Court would come to accept, eleven years later, in District of Columbia v. Heller. Even Thomas’s extraordinary claims, in a concurring opinion three years ago, about the racist foundations of abortion and birth control, found their way into a footnote in the Court’s recent abortion decision.

Despite this track record of stealth and success, liberals have often dismissed Thomas as stupid or a sellout, a patsy and a puppet, the Justice who cannot speak. That era is over. Yet Thomas’s significance far outstrips his captaincy of the Court’s war on liberalism. The most powerful Black man in America, Thomas is also our most symptomatic public intellectual, setting out a terrifying vision of race, rights, and violence that’s fast becoming a description of everyday life. It’s no longer a matter of Clarence Thomas’s Court. Increasingly, it’s Clarence Thomas’s America.

Dartmouth religious professor Zahra Ayubi gives the lowdown on the legal and religious ethics of abortion in the Islamic faith for The Conversation.

Many contemporary Muslim jurists and bioethicists point to specific verses in the Quran as well as hadiths with descriptions of the stages of human gestation that are mapped onto the pregnancy timeline in the contemporary abortion debate. The often-cited Quranic verses are 23:12-14: “And indeed We created humankind from an essence of clay. Then We placed him as a sperm-drop in a resting place firm; then We created the sperm-drop into a clinging substance, then We created the clinging substance into an embryonic lump, then We created from the embryonic lump bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, then We produced it as another creation. So blessed is God, the best of creators.”

Then there is the hadith in which Prophet Muhammad describes what happens in the womb: “The human being is brought together in the mother’s womb for forty days in the form of a drop of fluid, and then becomes a clot of thick blood for a similar period, and then a piece of flesh for a similar period. … Then the soul is breathed into him. …”

These scriptural traditions divide the pregnancy timeline into stages. Muslim jurists consider the 120-day mark of ensoulment (40 days x 3 stages), when God is believed to blow life into the fetus, as the point at which the fetus becomes a legal entity with financial rights. The fetus is believed to have inheritance rights; it can leave an inheritance to its siblings or other kin if it dies, or provide its parents with blood money in the event of a violent action against the mother.

Pamela Brown of CNN reports that according to a spokesperson for the Jan. 6 committee, former White House Council Pat Cipollone did exert executive privilege on at least a few of the committee’s questions.

Former Trump White House counsel Pat Cipollone invoked executive privilege in his closed-door interview Friday with the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol despite the panel’s attempts to pose questions that would not have required such a response, according to a person familiar with the interview.

A House select committee spokesperson told CNN the panel’s interview with Cipollone was productive but said there was no agreement made to restrict any questions to avoid potential issues with executive privilege.

“In our interview with Mr. Cipollone, the Committee received critical testimony on nearly every major topic in its investigation, reinforcing key points regarding Donald Trump’s misconduct and providing highly relevant new information that will play a central role in its upcoming hearings. This includes information demonstrating Donald Trump’s supreme dereliction of duty. The testimony also corroborated key elements of Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony. Allegations of some pre-interview agreement to limit Cipillone’s testimony are completely false,” committee spokesperson Tim Mulvey said.[…]

The select committee on Friday also asked Cipollone a series of questions about pardons, including potential pardons for the Trump family and whether Trump wanted to pardon himself, the person familiar said.

Casey Michael of The New York Times reports that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in prescribed medications for depression, anxiety, and other mental health difficulties.

First, the broad strokes: In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 15.8 percent of American adults took prescription pills for mental health. During the pandemic, the National Center for Health Statistics teamed up with the Census Bureau to carry out quick online “pulse” surveys and tracked mental health prescription pill use.

The numbers they turned up echo what we already sense: We are depressed, anxious, tired and distracted. What’s new is this: Almost a quarter of Americans over the age of 18 are now medicated for one or more of these conditions. […]

But for some age groups, that change has been more pronounced. Since 2017, there has been a 41 percent increase in antidepressant use for the teenagers included in the Express Scripts data (which consists of roughly 19 million people.) For this same 13- to 19-year-old bracket, in the first two years of the pandemic, there was a 17.3 percent change in anxiety medications. It had been a 9.3 percent rate of change between 2017 and 2019.

I think that we probably would have seen an increase simply because of the instability of the last six years but the pandemic did steepen the rate of that increase.

We turn our attention across the pond and the campaign to become the next British Prime Minister  beginning with Tomiwa Owolade of The New Statesman saying that with the odds in favor of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak becoming the next British Prime Minister, the questions of the racism of the Conservative Party have come to the forefront.

When Rishi Sunak launched his campaign to be the next prime minister, the QC and campaigner Jolyon Maugham responded with a pointed question on Twitter: “Do you think the members of your Party are ready to select a brown man, Rishi?” After receiving criticism for this question, Maugham disingenuously explained why he asked it: “My point was, I want, we should all want, greater representation of people of colour leading all political parties.” If that is the case, Maugham should be pleased by the upcoming Tory leadership contest: Sunak, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch have all announced they are standing for the leadership, and Sajid Javid and Nadhim Zahawi might run too. But that is not the case.

There’s a deeper point to Maugham’s statement, which he doesn’t spell out but is clear from the incredulous tone of his tweet: that there is a dissonance between ethnic minority people and the Conservative Party. This point was explicitly articulated by Nadine White, the race correspondent of the Independent, when she tweeted: “Can you imagine a Black or Asian person leading the Conservative Party? Others argue that the very concept is diametrically opposed to the party’s core values.” The implication of White’s tweet is that the Conservative Party is so profoundly racist that any leader of it from an ethnic minority constitutes a deep contradiction that needs to be explained.

The problem with this mindset – framing the relationship between ethnic minority people and conservatism as a remarkable contradiction – is that it justifies the racist hostility directed against many prominent conservative politicians. In aligning themselves with the party, so the argument goes, they have fundamentally betrayed their identity. The nature of the insults that someone like Kemi Badenoch receives reflects this dynamic – she is called a coon, a house negro, and so forth, by many people who strangely also call themselves anti-racist. In reality, political allegiances are more complex: they don’t reflect someone’s identity, but their values, and this cuts across race and ethnicity.

I know that there are more people of color and LGBTQs in the British Conservative Party than in the American Republican Party…but still…

You had better believe that they are paying close attention to the campaign to become the next British Prime Minister race in India.

Raghu Malhorta of Indian Express profiles the odds-on favorite to become the next British Prime Minister.

The 42-year-old Tory MP was born in the UK’s Southampton to Indian-origin parents. His father was a general practitioner for the National Health Service (NHS) and his mother ran a local pharmacy. His grandparents were born in Punjab and had migrated to East Africa, before moving to Britain in the 1960s where they reportedly worked administrative jobs.

He studied at the elite private school Winchester College, after which he went to Oxford University and Stanford University, where he received his MBA and won the prestigious Fullbright (sic) scholarship.

His impressive resume includes working as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and various hedge funds. In 2009 Sunak married Akshata Murty, the heir of Narayan Murthy, the billionaire owner of Infosys.

But Toby Helm and Michael Savage of the Guardian report that BoJo the Clown has the knives out for Sunak.

Senior Tories accused Boris Johnson of trying to torpedo Rishi Sunak’s bid to succeed him as prime minister – and of refusing to leave No 10 with good grace – as the leadership race descended into bitter infighting.

As a trio of cabinet ministers entered the contest last night, senior MPs said the battle now risked inflicting even more damage on the party than the fall of Margaret Thatcher more than three decades ago.

One party grandee accused Johnson of installing unsuitable MPs to middle-ranking and junior government posts when he knew he was on his way out “to cause maximum problems for his successor” who would inevitably have to sack most of them on taking office.[…]

Another senior figure in the government added that Johnson was so incensed at the way he had been ousted, having won such a huge mandate at the 2019 general election, that he was now intent on exacting revenge on those he saw as responsible, and on influencing events wherever possible from the outside.

Tim Ross of POLITICO Europe chronicles the conflicts that Johnson’s government had with the British civil service and that at least one British civil servant “struck back.”

For the past six years, the pro-Brexit campaigners Johnson led have blamed the U.K.’s 475,000 permanent government officials — known collectively as Whitehall and required to be politically impartial — for thwarting their efforts to deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum.

Since Johnson entered Downing Street in July 2019, civil servants have faced a barrage of attacks from his aides and allies, including ministers at the top of government, who have dubbed them “the Blob.”

But on July 5, one Whitehall grandee struck back.

Simon McDonald, the former top mandarin at the Foreign Office, delivered what turned out to be a decisive blow that helped bring the prime minister down. He went public with a claim that Johnson’s Downing Street was lying to cover up how much the PM knew about allegations of sexual assault against Chris Pincher, a minister he appointed.

“No. 10 keep changing their story and are still not telling the truth,” McDonald wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. Johnson knew all about Pincher’s record and gave him a job anyway, he said.

Christoph Scheuermann of Der Spiegel writes that as irritating as Britain has been to the European Union, the EU also needs Britain.

Boris Johnson, who announced he would resign on Thursday, is personally responsible for the fact that trust in the British government is at close to zero in many European capitals. Relations between Berlin and London are pretty much on ice. For Britain, though, a country that has been governed for almost three years by a clown together with ideologues and crackpots, this is more than an image problem. At the latest, the country’s reputation as a pragmatic middle power had been destroyed by the point he took office. It’s quite possible that sighs of relief could be heard within the president’s office in the Élysée Palace in Paris and the Chancellery in Berlin when Johnson announced his resignation.

But his party will continue to argue about how the country should position itself in terms of the rest of Europe, because disagreement still abounds over the matter, even six years after the referendum to leave the European Union. The battle between ideologues who reject anything European and moderates who see it as an economic imperative to move closer to the continent is not going to end with Johnson’s departure. Indeed, Brexit continues to threaten the country’s domestic stability.

Moreover, Scotland is likely to vote again next year on secession from the rest of the UK. The danger that the nationalists will win and the Scots will opt for independence is significantly greater than it was during the first referendum in 2014.

It’s easy to forget that with all the scandals, the only politician more popular in Ukraine than Boris Johnson is President Volodymyr Zelensky, himself. Igor Kossov of The Kyiv Independent writes about what, if any changes, in UK policy toward Ukraine that may be forthcoming.

“In policy terms, I don’t think this will make a dramatic difference to the UK’s policy towards Ukraine,” said Ian Bond, the director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform. “I don’t see anyone among the leading candidates who can be regarded as having problematic views on Russia.”

He added that while there are lawmakers with “dangerous” views on Russia, either due to business interests or personal connections, they are nowhere close to power.

“I am confident that the UK will continue strongly to support Ukraine, whoever leads the UK government,” Robert Brinkley, the former UK ambassador to Ukraine, told the Kyiv Independent.

Roger Gale, a lawmaker with the Conservative Party, echoed this sentiment in a brief comment, saying his colleagues recognize the importance of continued support for Ukraine.

Jonathan Beale of BBC News reports that the use of drones in the Russia-Ukraine war is unparalleled.

Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been used widely in other wars, but not on this scale. They’re key weapons for both Russia and Ukraine. Both sides have larger military drones – like Russia’s Orlan-10 or Ukraine’s famous Bayraktar, a Turkish-made drone. They’re often more expensive and complex and can be easier to target and shoot down.

The most ubiquitous drones in this battle are commercial drones, the kind you or I can buy off the shelf. They’re also cheap and easy to replace.

Both sides are using them to spot the enemy’s positions and then help direct and correct their own artillery fire on a target. But these small drones are also being fitted with explosives.

Behind the frontlines, near Slovyansk, a team of soldiers from the drone intelligence unit show us how they deploy them.

Tobias Harris of The Washington Post writes about the polarizing legacy of assassinated former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

From his arrival in Japan’s House of Representatives as a junior lawmaker in 1993, Abe pursued controversial goals. Above all else, he wanted to transform core institutions of the postwar order introduced by the U.S. occupation and embraced by a portion of Japan’s political class. He believed that these institutions – most notably, the education system and the 1947 constitution (written largely by U.S. occupation officials) – prevented Japan from retaking its rightful place among the world’s great powers, reducing it to “subordinate independence” on the United States.

Abe inherited this mind-set from his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served in the wartime government, was jailed for a time as a war criminal and then returned to politics in the 1950s determined to restore Japan’s full independence as a member of the “free world.” With the end of the Cold War unsettling Japan’s foreign policy, Abe and his fellow conservatives saw new opportunities to pursue this vision. They wanted to revise the constitution, strengthen Japan’s military and reform the education system, breaking the power of the left-wing teachers union that they believed taught young Japanese a “masochistic” version of Japan’s history, particularly its wartime past.

This agenda put Abe and his allies on a collision course with many members of the political class. The Japanese left, fiercely protective of the postwar constitution, hated Abe, seeing him and the New Right as militarists. But his ideas also alienated some of the older generations in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), many of whom had experienced the war and were attached to postwar prime minister Shigeru Yoshida’s vision of a lightly armed Japan that was firmly allied with the United States and focused on its role as a “civilian” economic superpower.

Finally today, Daniel L. Byman of The Brookings Institution explains the difficult problems facing President Joe Biden as he prepares to travel to the Middle East.

Iran, the foreign policy priority for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and many other regional states, is a major sticking point. Indeed, most regional allies oppose the Biden administration’s efforts to restore the Iran nuclear deal, seeing it as making too many concessions to Tehran and fearing that the United States in general will not stand up to Iranian aggression and subversion. With regular Iranian missile strikes on Iraq and missile strikes from Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, this fear is quite strong. Nuclear talks appear to be floundering, and the Biden administration will need to decide whether to try to revive them at the risk of further alienating regional states or abandon them only to work on the next challenge — how to create other diplomatic —  and military — options that will stop the Iranian bomb and ensure regional security. Iran, for its part, will interpret the Biden visit as the United States further siding with its regional enemies.

Russia is another sticking point. The United States is trying to create a global coalition to oppose Russian aggression in Ukraine. Middle Eastern states, however, see Russia as a source of wheat, while their populations question why Ukraine should be the subject of global solidarity while Syria was not. Many are more anti-American than pro-Ukraine. Regardless of regime views on Ukraine, Russia is also a military player in Syria, and Israel works with Moscow to ensure that Israel can strike Iranian assets in Syria without interference from Russian forces.

In order to win over regional leaders, Biden will also need to curtail some of his critical rhetoric. This is especially true with his condemnation of the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the brutal Saudi and UAE war in Yemen. These are the right stances from a human rights perspective, but Riyadh and its allies will not be accommodating in other areas if they are the subject of regular, public criticism.

Good day, everyone!

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