Heather “Digby” Parton’s screed about Justice Scalia’s “depravity” and the death penalty gives new meaning to the word “dishonest.” Call it the “Digby” dialectic!

What little I know about Heather Barton is that she is a liberal political blogger. For unexplained reasons, she selected “Digby” as her pseudonym. Here’s a photo, albeit a strange one, that provides a little additional detail.

Photo credit: Down with Tyranny. On the left, with a death star gaze, is Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation. On the right, Digby.  This was the occassion for the photo: "If you're going to be hanging out with a horde of folks for the giving out (and receiving) of prizes, I suppose you can't do much better than a crowd of -- at least theoretically -- unreconstructed lefties like last night's festivities for the bestowing of the 2014 Hillman Awards, imbued with the spirit of the great labor organizer and leader Sidney Hillman, a stalwart of the time when a union wasn't just about labor-management negotiations but about improving the lives of its members and even the country as a whole, through housing and social-welfare programs. Some of us were there particularly to share in the thrill of our pal Digby receiving the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and a thrill it was."

Photo credit: Down with Tyranny. (DWT). On the left is Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation. On the right, Digby. The occasion for the photo according to DWT was the following: “If you’re going to be hanging out with a horde of folks for the giving out (and receiving) of prizes, I suppose you can’t do much better than a crowd of — at least theoretically — unreconstructed lefties like last night’s festivities for the bestowing of the 2014 Hillman Awards, imbued with the spirit of the great labor organizer and leader Sidney Hillman, a stalwart of the time when a union wasn’t just about labor-management negotiations but about improving the lives of its members and even the country as a whole, through housing and social-welfare programs.
Some of us were there particularly to share in the thrill of our pal Digby receiving the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and a thrill it was.

OK, “Digby” let’s talk. Be forewarned, however. Afterwards, we won’t be friends.

Digby, I want to discuss your Salon piece of yesterday, to wit: Scalia’s Utter Moral Failure Exposed. That’s the one with these subtitled lines, “He doesn’t think executing an innocent man matters. How on earth can such a depraved human be on our Supreme Court?” Let me quote the entirety of your piece for the sake of thoroughness and, most importantly, because your piece is so nastily florid that it helps make the point of this post.

So, after the not too flattering photo of Scalia that you or your editors added and which we see below, your defamatory rant reads like this:

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (Credit: AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (Credit: AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

While my views on the morality of the death penalty have nothing to do with how I vote as a judge, they have a lot to do with whether I can or should be a judge at all. To put the point in the blunt terms employed by Justice Harold Blackmun towards the end of his career on the bench, when he announced that he would henceforth vote (as Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall had previously done) to overturn all death sentences, when I sit on a Court that reviews and affirms capital convictions, I am part of “the machinery of death.” My vote, when joined with at least four others, is, in most cases, the last step that permits an execution to proceed. I could not take part in that process if I believed what was being done to be immoral.

– Justice Antonin Scalia

One might wonder how he can stay on the court after the revelation last week that two convicted murderers he once described as lucky to be given the blessing of a lethal injection have turned out to be innocent. That’s right, this is about the case everyone’s been talking about — the two brothers, both mentally disabled, who were railroaded onto death row some 30 years ago with coerced confessions by a corrupt police department. As the New York Times reported:

The case against the men, always weak, fell apart after DNA evidence implicated another man whose possible involvement had been somehow overlooked by the authorities even though he lived only a block from where the victim’s body was found, and he had admitted to committing a similar rape and murder around the same time.

The startling shift in fortunes for the men, Henry Lee McCollum, 50, who has spent three decades on death row, and Leon Brown, 46, who was serving a life sentence, provided one of the most dramatic examples yet of the potential harm from false, coerced confessions and of the power of DNA tests to exonerate the innocent.

They were 19 and 15 at the time of the murder and their conviction was based on nothing more than their coerced confessions, one of which was said to have ended with the defendant saying, “Can I go home now?” It was a famous case, used often by law and order Republican politicians in North Carolina as an electoral cudgel with which to beat Democratic rivals over the head. The state appeals process eventually reduced the sentence of one of the defendants to life in prison but until a state commission with power to subpoena evidence looked into it, the DNA from the scene was not tested and other evidence from the crime scene that implicated another convicted rapist was never processed. When they were, they exonerated these two men.

What exactly was it that Justice Scalia said about them? Well, he cited this particular case in the decision on Collins v. Collins back in 1994 in which he disagreed with Justice Harry Blackmun on the constitutionality of the death penalty. This was the famous case in which Justice Blackmun disavowed his former support for capital punishment and declared that he would no longer “tinker with the machinery of death.” Scalia wrote, with characteristic sarcasm:

Justice Blackmun begins his statement by describing with poignancy the death of a convicted murderer by lethal injection. He chooses, as the case in which to make that statement, one of the less brutal of the murders that regularly come before us, the murder of a man ripped by a bullet suddenly and unexpectedly, with no opportunity to prepare himself and his affairs, and left to bleed to death on the floor of a tavern. The death-by-injection which Justice Blackmun describes looks pretty desirable next to that. It looks even better next to some of the other cases currently before us, which Justice Blackmun did not select as the vehicle for his announcement that the death penalty is always unconstitutional, for example, the case of the 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat. How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!”

Yes, how very enviable. Unless the defendants are innocent, in which case it is as horrifying as the brutal slaying of the victim, particularly after 30 years spent imprisoned in a small cell waiting for the day that he will know in advance he is to die. That alone is cruel and unusual punishment. Not that Justice Scalia sees it that way. (His comments suggest that the methods of punishment should be directly correlated to the luridness of the crime, an antediluvian concept rejected by the Enlightenment-influenced writers of the Constitution he alleges to take so literally.)

Death penalty supporters inevitably use cases like this to illustrate that “the system worked” and, by implication, always works. Except that’s sophistry and everyone knows it. The only reason it worked in this case was because the state of North Carolina empowered an outside commission to investigate. And what they found was malfeasance, a coverup and a corrupt indifference to justice. The legal system obscured the truth at every level and every step along the way. There is no way of knowing how often that happens but any sentient being realizes that it is impossible that this was the only time.

Worst of all, Justice Scalia and other death penalty proponents who find nothing immoral in the state’s conscious, coldblooded taking of a life are equally unconcerned that they might be taking the life of an innocent person. The horrifying injustice in such a mistake (or criminal corruption) is irrelevant. Apparently as long as the train of the legal system runs on time there’s no cause for him to lose any sleep. Indeed, Scalia has said so:

This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable.

This man claims that he could not be a judge if he thought his participation in the death penalty was immoral and yet he does not believe it matters under the Constitution if the state executes innocent people. How on earth can such a depraved person be on the Supreme Court of the United States? On what basis can our country lay claim to a superior system of justice and a civilized moral order when such people hold power?

Dear Digby, let’s start with your lack of credibility. In court, Digby, we often judge credibility by looking at qualifications. Aside from the fact that you recently got a writing award from “unreconstructed lefties,” you apparently keep your qualifications hidden. See, for example, here where you were quoted saying: “I feel my ideas should stand on their own without the authority (or lack thereof) of my own story.” That is disingenious. No one wants to know your shoe size, an informed reader wants to know what qualifications you have to write what you write. Remember Digby, you have elected to play God and judge the Justice’s soul.

I believe I understand why you hide your qualifications. I was able to find the following smidgen about you: “She studied theater at San Jose State University (then known as San Jose State College) and worked on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and for a number of film companies, including Island Pictures, Polygram, and Artisan Entertainment.” Digby (blogger)Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (last accessed September 8, 2014).

Those are wholly insufficient qualifications for asserting that Justice Scalia is immoral and depraved. Or am I missing something? Have you seriously studied the great books about the meaning of justice? Have you steeped yourself in the study of morality? Do you understand that there are important conceptual differences between morality and justice? Have you spent any time in a philosophy department or at a convent or seminary? Do you have the slightest bit of journalistic training? Have you been a lawyer? Have you been a judge?

Tell me, just what qualifies you for writing a piece calling Justice Scalia and judges like him “immoral” and “depraved.” Those are fist fighting words and you know it. A cute but fake name does not give you a pass and it provides no qualifications for the task you undertook. So far as I can tell, there are few, if any, external reasons to trust your skill, your integrity or your objectivity in judging the morality or depravity of anyone let alone a Supreme Court Justice.

While you bury your background, I know this: Unlike me, you have never consigned a man to die by the death penalty and then opened the paper the next morning to see that you are responsible for another human being’s demise. Digby, do you see why I take your screed personally? Alas, with your superior “progressive  values,” I am betting you don’t care who you trash.

I also know this: Unlike Scalia, you have not devoted your life to the study of our Constitution and the application of that document to the gut wrenching business of overseeing the killing of human beings. The truth is that many federal judges, and I would suppose many state judges as well, understand that the death penalty has and will continue to result in the innocent being put to death in some small percentage of the cases. If you are shocked about that then you are even sillier than I suspected. Are we judges required to ignore our oaths of office because delicate snowflakes such as yourself find an imperfect world jarring?

A perfectly moral, and a perfectly just, argument supports the assertion that our Constitutional order requires due process in the death penalty context as in all others but never perfection. If it were otherwise, and as Scalia tentatively reasons, the words of that great document would be different and, in particular, the notion of “democracy” in the death penalty realm would become meaningless. No lesser person than the great Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “If my fellow citizens want to go to Hell I will help them. It’s my job.” Was Holmes “immoral” and “depraved?” By the way, have I stretched your knowledge of history?

Scalia accurately states that the: “Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged ‘actual innocence’ is constitutionally cognizable.”  His statement is not an admission of depravity but a description of over 200 years of jurisprudence. Is Scalia “immoral” and “depraved” for telling the truth about the undisputed history of the Supreme Court since the founding of the Republic?

What’s more, you know Justice Scalia possesses a deep and abiding faith in his Roman Catholic religion. You also know that the Roman Catholic Church values the life of a person at least as highly as you do. Despite these facts, you headline your piece with this: “He doesn’t think executing an innocent man matters.” (Emphasis added.) Of course, Scalia never said or even implied that the death of innocent people doesn’t matter. Putting words into the Justice’s mouth while simultaneously denying without any basis his profession of faith and morality is exactly what one expects from the mind of a failed theatre major from San Jose State College who finds a script that needs to be rewritten to satisfy her narcissistic need to play a fanged Mother Teresa. Nothing is too outrageous for Digby and the cause.

In summary, Digby you have consciously lied. Justice Scalia may be many things but you know in your heart that he is neither “immoral” nor “depraved.” In short, you deserve harsh condemnation for the Digby dialectic.*

RGK

*As this blog in other places proves, I hold no brief for Scalia or the Supreme Court. I just can’t stand intellectually dishonest and intentionally mean-spirited attacks on the federal judiciary and the utterly fallible but basically decent men and women who serve the People as Judges and Justices.

Update on September 9, 2014 at 1:48 PM CDT.  After I retrieved the original version from Salon, the main title was changed. It now reads: Scalia’s utter moral failure: How he destroys any claim to a superior system of justiceSo far as I can tell, no other changes were made.

 

 

 

 

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