SCOTUS scores

The present moment is ripe to recall the Prize for Civility in Public Life that Allegheny College awards annually, and especially the latest recipients from 2017.

Allegheny began awarding the prize in 2012 as a quest to reverse “the rise of incivility in our democracy,” as college president James H. Mullen wrote at the time in naming columnists and NewsHour hosts David Brooks and Mark Shields as inaugural prizewinners.

The 2017 honorees for the prize were none other than Ruth Bader Ginsburg and (posthumously) Antonin Scalia.

The two U.S. Supreme Court justices were known to be fast friends, despite being political foes. In addition to sharing similar personal interests in travel, opera and wine, Ginsburg and Scalia shared something else: high confirmation vote scores.

Nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, Scalia was approved in the Senate on a 98-0 vote. Nominated by President Bill Clinton seven years later in 1993, Ginsburg won her confirmation in a 96-3 vote (even after flat-out refusing to answer a number of questions in her hearings).

During that same short period Clarence Thomas eked out a 52-48 senate confirmation score, and Robert Bork’s nomination was rejected 42-58.

The character assassination of Bork, widely regarded as one of the most brilliant scholars ever nominated, was masterminded by senior Democratic senate leaders and special interest groups. If memory fails you, go back and read the “Bork’s America” scare-tactic speech given (with the straightest of faces) by Sen. Ted Kennedy just one hour after Bork’s nomination announcement.

The same Democrats who had voted “yea” for Scalia in 1986 just one year later bashed and dashed Bork’s nomination in the most uncivil attack in recent memory at the time.

Before Bork, here are the voting scores for the SCOTUS nominees starting in 1970: 94-0 (Blackmun), 89-1 (Powell), 68-26 (Rehnquist), 98-0 (Stevens), 99-0 (O’Connor), and 98-0 (Scalia).

Incredibly, with the single exception of Rehnquist, in 17 years prior only one senator cast a “nay” vote on a Supreme Court associate justice nomination.

The Bork lynching by Democrats—they had warned of a combative posture, but Reagan rightly characterized the Senate leadership’s collusion with leading special interest groups as a “lynch mob”—negatively altered the civility of such proceedings.

Prior to 1970, most SCOTUS nominees were confirmed by simple voice vote. Both of President John F. Kennedy’s nominees, three of President Dwight Eisenhower’s, two of President Harry Truman’s and seven of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s were all confirmed that way, so no record of scoring exists for those.

The last SCOTUS justice to receive a unanimous confirmation vote is the one now retiring. Anthony Kennedy was confirmed 97-0 in 1987.

Since Ginsburg garnered her 96 “yea” confirmation votes 25 years ago this August, here are the SCOTUS scores: 87-9 (Breyer), 78-22 (Roberts), 58-42 (Alito), 68-31 (Sotomayor), 63-37 (Kagan), 54-45 (Gorsuch).

The paradigm shift that has rendered 90-something confirmation scores a thing of the past isn’t an accident. It’s a product of a distinctive and collective special interest strategic initiative, carried out by the political party prone to pander to those interests.

Fringe groups seeking radical change began to realize that while successful legislation often takes large sums of time and money, the Supreme Court can change the law for 320 million Americans in a single session, sometimes by a single vote. It has proven much easier at times to lobby and convince five SCOTUS justices instead of the majority of nearly 500 federal lawmakers.

That dynamic change, naturally, unduly politicizes the judicial nomination process, creating both contention and (as desperation born of a “live by the gavel, die by the gavel” potential pendulum swing emerges) increased incivility.

With the announcement of the next SCOTUS nominee just days away, liberal groups are already planning tens of millions of dollars in ad campaigns to fan flames of unfounded fears. Political pressure affects senators, no doubt. On both sides of the aisle, for those facing less than certain re-election this confirmation vote will loom large as a career consideration.

It would be better if the political discussion could rise above the next nominee to the more substantive issue of the shaky footing that law-by-SCOTUS-decree creates. That argument—convenience of court rulings versus consensus of legislation—has been a long time coming, and though painful, will in the end be good medicine for both the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole.

There wouldn’t be frenzied worries over Roe v. Wade had the abortion lobby simply persevered for statutory (or even constitutional amendment) success. At the time, and still today, that ruling was widely criticized as lacking sufficient underpinning in law.

But hey, with a friendly court, it worked.

The fact that special interests are overwrought now about a possibly unfriendly court signifies a colossal problem–not with those groups, but with the modern “law by judicial decree” process. Self-government must rely on elected representatives in Congress and the 50 state legislatures. The only way that works is for the Supreme Court to exercise self-restraint.

Justices are ill-equipped to make law (they’re the furthest thing from representative), which isn’t their job anyway. We need nominees who respect that above all. Hopefully that’s the kind we’ll get next.

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Pre-K’s pre-emptive power

There are few statistical slam-dunks in public policy.

Most social issues have multidimensional complexity comprising various factors, each with the singular capacity to wildly skew analysis—and thus skewer the effectiveness of social programs designed to solve them. That’s why some programs wind up doing the exact opposite of their intended purpose, and making things worse.

Occasionally, however, an idea materializes whose time has not only come, but also arrives accompanied by great opportunity.

Pre-kindergarten education is that idea, and the time and place to seize national leadership on it is Arkansas 2016.

For some (and perhaps for many), “preschool” has knee-jerk connotations derived from the general partisan politicization surrounding education issues. That reflex is a hindrance to clear thinking. Even the slightest deliberation over the factual realities suggest that support for more pre-K funding is simply smart common sense.

Here are a few ways high quality pre-K reduces costs and returns to society, by some analytical estimates, up to $16 for every $1 in program cost.

It produces staggering results in lowering crime. Good luck finding any single public initiative with demonstrated reductions of arrests and sentencing among low-income teens and twentysomethings that can rival those achieved by pre-kindergarten enrollment.

The criminals 20 years from now are today’s toddlers, and research from the Perry Preschool Study (which followed subjects through age 40) showed enormous reductions in criminality from high-risk children who participated in a high-quality pre-K program. At age 40, the pre-K students had been sentenced for a crime 46 percent less often than their peers in a control group who did not attend pre-K. The pre-K group also had a 33 percent lower arrest rate for violent crimes. The drop in drug-crime arrests for the pre-K students was a remarkable 58 percent.

Reductions of that magnitude are almost unimaginable in a day and time in which a 3 or 4 percent drop in crime rates makes headlines. And here in Arkansas we suffer some disproportionate victimization in some violent categories.

If you’re anti-crime, you should be pro-preschool.

It focuses on reading readiness. Literacy is absolutely fundamental to learning, and we know that if a child arrives at kindergarten behind on his letters, he’s unlikely to ever catch up. Nearly nine out of 10 (88 percent) poor readers in the first grade are still poor readers in the fourth grade, according to Pew Charitable Trusts data. And 75 percent of poor third-grade readers turn into poor high school readers.

Model pre-K programs have curricula that ready students for reading so they don’t start out behind. I’m a believer that all real learning starts with reading, and the earlier a child becomes a good reader, the better that child will do in school. In a state like Arkansas that gets double-whammied by high child poverty and low child literacy rates, pre-K spells extraordinary potential.

If you’re pro-reading, you should be pro-preschool.

It encourages better parenting. One of the requirements for a quality pre-K program is interactivity and feedback from parents, at a more involved level than a typical often-skipped parent-teacher conference in regular school. High-risk children often come from troubled family environments, and pre-K can introduce some measure of stability for them.

Research data also show that pre-K students in high-risk categories benefited later in life as parents themselves: Pre-K female participants in studies had significantly fewer teen pregnancies and fewer abortions.

Pre-K participants in the Perry School Study at age 40 were four times more likely to do volunteer community work than the control group.

If you’re pro-family and pro-life, you should be pro-preschool.

It leads to better employment and earning power. Farsighted business leaders and organizations across the country are recognizing the significant difference pre-K programs can make in the later working lives of children. They know the toddlers of today will be the emerging work force 20 years from now, and they view pre-K as particularly relevant in economically depressed areas as a job-training factor.

The studies show higher employment and wages among low-income children who attend pre-K, and the Perry data featured a 36 percent increase in median annual earnings at age 40.

So chambers of commerce are lining up in support, as reported in Jonesboro last week, where the number of pre-K students and classes in the Jonesboro Public School district have doubled since 2004—and there’s a waiting list.

If you’re pro-business, you should be pro-preschool.

Pre-K kids are better prepared for K-12. In some respects, all the previous benefits are icing on the primary purpose cake. At the heart of quality pre-K is its highly demonstrated ability to help kids do better in school, especially those also confronted with poverty.

Unlike so many social-engineering ideas, pre-K offers proven results—provided that key quality indicators are in place: qualified teachers, small classes, effective curricula, systematic parental interaction.

There are lobbies, special interests and political opportunists who all hope to make a football of pre-K for their own ends. But it need not be partisan, nor even a public/private issue.

It’s just a good idea in general, and a great idea for a state like Arkansas.