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Opinion: The simple thing Supreme Court can’t agree on

Opinion by Richard Galant, CNN

(CNN) — “What’s in a name?”

Shakespeare’s Juliet is speaking on her balcony as the smitten Romeo hides below in an orchard. “That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” Romeo is from the Montague family, mortal enemies to Juliet’s own Capulets, but his name means nothing compared to her love for him.

And yet naming is one of the most powerful tools people use to define problems, seize opportunities and win arguments. (Even elephants find that names come in handy, a new study suggests.) The four criminal cases brought against former President Donald Trump are about “justice” and “accountability,” according to their defenders. To their critics, they are “lawfare” — political warfare by other means.

How we name a gun matters too. In 2017, Stephen Paddock began firing on a crowd of people attending an outdoor concert in Las Vegas. Shooting from a window on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, he killed 58 people and injured about 500 more in the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. As Justice Clarence Thomas noted in Friday’s Supreme Court ruling, “The gunman equipped his weapons with bump stocks, which allowed him to fire hundreds of rounds in a matter of minutes.”

Responding to a national outcry, the Trump administration-led US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms banned bump stocks, citing a federal law that bans machine guns.

But what is a “machine gun”? Writing for the 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court, Thomas stated, “We hold that a semiautomatic rifle equipped with a bump stock is not a ‘machinegun’ because it cannot fire more than one shot ‘by a single function of the trigger.’ And, even if it could, it would not do so ‘automatically.’ ATF therefore exceeded its statutory authority by issuing a Rule that classifies bump stocks as machineguns.”

In opposition, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the three dissenters, “When I see a bird that walks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck. A bump-stock-equipped semiautomatic rifle fires ‘automatically more than one shot, without manual reloading, by a single function of the trigger.’ Because I, like Congress, call that a machinegun, I respectfully dissent.” She noted that “a rifle equipped with a bump stock can fire at a rate between 400 and 800 rounds per minute.”

Historian Dominic Erdozain wrote, “There is something reckless in a Supreme Court that can annihilate gun laws by pulling at words, toying with phrases. There are many reasons to think about reforming the higher court. Decisions like this ought to be high among them.”

In contrast, when the court decided the other big case of the week — a conservative group’s challenge to the FDA approval of the abortion pill mifepristone — there was no disagreement about the meaning of a different term: “standing.”

The nine justices reached unanimity on technical grounds, but there’s no way to paper over the gulf between supporters and opponents of abortion rights, especially since the 2022 ruling that struck down Roe v. Wade.

Law professor Mary Ziegler noted, “A unanimous Supreme Court batted down the plaintiffs’ request, holding — correctly, in my view — that the plaintiffs never had standing to sue. But that doesn’t mean the questions raised by [the Alliance Defending Freedom] are going away — not by a long shot. Other antiabortion plaintiffs are ready to bring the same claims, and to assert that they have standing where others have failed. And critical questions about the fate of abortion pills … will likely return to the Supreme Court later on.”

Carrie Sheffield argued that “even with its ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing, the Supreme Court could have used the opportunity to offer some discussion of the core issues in its opinion. Instead, the court took a narrow view, clearly unwilling to consider whether chemically induced abortions from mifepristone posed undue risks to women.”

The reproductive rights debate flared up in another context last week.

Lia Buffa De Feo always wanted to be a mother, but, as she wrote, “My daughter wouldn’t be here today without access to IVF, as we are one of the millions of families that required assistance to conceive and bring a child into this world.” Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention came out against IVF, and an effort by Senate Democrats to establish a federal right to the procedure failed.

“Some GOP lawmakers argue that life begins at conception,” DeFeo noted. “This is the same premise that underpinned the Alabama Supreme Court ruling that embryos used in IVF are children and that those who destroy them can be held liable for wrongful death — a decision that threw fertility patients in limbo before the swift backlash led Republican lawmakers in the state to back a law aimed at protecting IVF patients.”

Alito on tape

The “rule of law” is an indispensable feature of a democracy like the United States. Without it, you have a society where everything is subject to the whim of the officials controlling the government. Yet if people don’t accept the legitimacy of the courts, the consensus supporting liberal democracy begins to break down.

The Dobbs ruling eliminating a national right to abortion was attacked as “lawless” and “illegitimate” by advocates of abortion rights, fueling a deepening lack of trust in the court. And last week, the author of that ruling, Justice Samuel Alito, arguably made matters worse when he was caught on tape assenting to a religiously-based interpretation of US politics.

David Zurawik wrote, “As a journalist and professor who teaches media ethics, I have long been against the kind of undercover secret recording activist Lauren Windsor made of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and his wife, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts. But as a citizen living in this perilous moment for our democracy, I am grateful for the information she obtained and shared on Monday — particularly about the extent of Alito’s right-wing, religious views…”

“In response to a statement from Windsor suggesting there’s a war between those who believe in God and those who do not, and that believers have to fight to take the nation to a place of ‘godliness,’ Alito says, ‘I agree with you. I agree with you.’”

Hunter Biden convicted

In a coincidence that Hollywood scriptwriters would never have imagined, President Joe Biden gave a previously scheduled speech on gun safety hours after his son Hunter was convicted on felony gun charges Tuesday.

“Talk about awkward timing,” Julian Zelizer wrote. “Sometimes real-world politics works in mysterious ways. But the fact that Hunter Biden’s story is now intertwined with a push for gun control creates some unusual cross-pressures not only for Biden but also for both Democrats and Republicans as they navigate the difficult terrain of the 2024 election.”

“The GOP has moved over the years into a staunch position against almost any stringent gun regulation. Should they double down on the actual charges that have resulted in Biden’s conviction, they would end up helping to bolster the very kinds of gun-restriction laws that the party has been eager to avoid.”

A number of Republicans have already come to Hunter Biden’s defense. “While President Biden spoke about enhancing federal background checks on prospective gun buyers,” wrote Shermichael Singleton, “two of Hunter’s felony convictions were connected to lying about his drug use on the ATF’s Form 4473, which a federally licensed firearms seller uses to run a background check on a buyer. This is ironic, to say the least.”

Singleton, who has worked on three GOP presidential campaigns and runs a production company whose clients include gun manufacturers, is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. “Hunter Biden should have never had to answer the drug use question on that form in the first place. The US Supreme Court must provide guidance regarding his case, which centers around a gun restriction that I believe is unconstitutional.”

Former federal prosecutor Dennis Aftergut saw “one huge takeaway and one huge mystery” in the Hunter Biden case. “The takeaway is that the rule of law is working. The Department of Justice, in an administration led by Hunter‘s father, President Joe Biden, prosecuted his son and convicted him. It’s hard to conceive of better evidence of a justice system operating without fear or favor.”

“The mystery is this: Why did Hunter Biden ever test his luck with a jury when a guilty plea would have better served him and so many others who are close to him, not to mention the country?”

Trump vs. Biden

The point of Thursday’s meetings between Trump and Republican legislators on Capitol Hill was to project unity behind the party’s candidate for the presidency. They mostly succeeded, with Trump memorably shaking hands with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell after the two had publicly criticized each other in strong terms. But some of the glow was dimmed by reports that Trump had criticized Milwaukee as “horrible” in a closed-door meeting with House Republicans.

Trump explained afterward that he was referring to Milwaukee’s crime rate and to his ongoing — unjustified — assault on the integrity of the 2020 election. But “the wisdom of dissing a city…in a crucial swing state…in an election year…is, shall we say, questionable,” said SE Cupp.

“Add to that the fact that the Milwaukee that Trump dumped on is the very same Milwaukee that’s hosting the Republican National Convention, where Trump will presumably accept his party’s nomination for president.”

“Way to say thanks for having us, Milwaukee.”

Trump turned 78 Friday. He’s three years younger than Biden, and together they are the oldest candidates to ever face off for the presidency. “Ageism continues to thrive without much resistance in our society,” observed Arick Wierson. Jokes about their ages “are frequently featured in late-night comedy without so much as a hint of pushback from mainstream media.”

“Many outlets have failed to call out the overt ageism that is running rampant in the way popular culture is talking about this campaign. In fact, many have piled on. The Guardian, for example, ran a headline, ‘Trump is too old and incited a coup. Biden is too old and mixes up names. America, how to choose?’ while The Atlantic published a piece entitled ‘Has Anyone Noticed That Trump Is Really Old?’”

“All the talk about how Trump and Biden are too old for the job is only serving to reinforce negative stereotypes about people who reach a certain biological milestone, regardless of their individual mental acuity and physical health.”

For more:

Dean Obeidallah: A reality show starring Trump and Biden could be exactly what US voters need

Oona Hanson: Mocking Trump’s appearance reveals an ugly truth

G7 family photos

The leaders of the G7 countries met in Puglia, Italy, last week and posed for the almost always awkward “family photo.” As Frida Ghitis wrote, “This year’s photo — against a Mediterranean-flavored backdrop of olive trees and warm stone — still manages to radiate the stress of the moment. Times are difficult for the majority of these leaders. The future is uncertain for their careers, their alliance and the world. They seem grim, yet determined.”

“The 2024 summit comes amid intensifying political turmoil — just days after a European Parliament election that left the centrist leaders of France and Germany gravely wounded politically, with the far right on the ascendence.”

For more:

David A. Andelman: Macron just laid the ultimate far-right trap

Paul Hockenos: This country’s 16-year-olds voted for the first time. The results are scary

Hostage rescue

Four civilians kidnapped by Hamas from the Nova music festival in Israel on October 7 were rescued last weekend by Israeli forces.

“But it’s not an unalloyed victory,” wrote Jill Filipovic. “The rescue was complex and, as is often the case, did not go all that smoothly. It also extracted a devastating civilian cost — a truth that complicates what should be a happy narrative about innocents rescued in a daring effort.”

Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas who is believed to be hiding in Gaza, has sent messages to other members of the terrorist group revealing something of his state of mind, the Wall Street Journal reported. Civilian casualties in this kind of war, he reportedly said, were “necessary sacrifices” and he claimed that “we have the Israelis right where we want them.”

The fate of a ceasefire plan being pushed by the Biden administration rests with Sinwar’s group and the Israeli government. So, who is Sinwar? “Like Osama bin Laden before him,” Peter Bergen wrote, “Sinwar is a zealot whose opposition to the state of Israel is not so much political as it is religious.” He believes “that the land of Israel was, in fact, Muslim land and that Muslims had a religious right to take it back, and as a result, any kind of two-state solution was impossible.”

“Sinwar served time in prison for abducting and killing two Israeli soldiers, for which he received four life sentences, according to the US State Department’s 2015 designation of Sinwar as a terrorist.” He was released in 2011 along with more than 1,000 other prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was being held in Gaza.

“While he was in prison,” Bergen wrote, “Sinwar admitted that he had killed several Palestinians who he believed were collaborating with the Israelis. According to a 1989 interrogation of Sinwar published by the Israel Hayom newspaper, Sinwar told Israeli interrogators that he strangled one of those collaborators with his bare hands and used a keffiyeh head scarf to suffocate another.”

For more:

Ilene Prusher: Literary protest against the war in Gaza has gone off the rails


The recently concluded third season of “Hacks” was “glorious,” in the view of critic Sara Stewart. But she wasn’t wowed by the ending (spoiler alert!). The denouement “saw Ava (Hannah Einbinder) putting into practice all the lessons she’s learned from her boss, comedy veteran Deborah (Jean Smart), and regaining her head writer job via blackmail. The clear takeaway: You have to be willing to be absolutely ruthless to be a player in the patriarchy that still dominates mainstream comedy.”

“No disrespect, but… duh.”

I’m conflicted, because I have savored nearly every moment of this show, from its exploration of the absurdism of aging as an entertainer in the public eye to the May-December platonic love between two prickly and hilarious women to, more broadly, the ever-evolving state of comedy. The show is a valentine to that industry at a time when it’s ever-harder for funny people to find outlets.”

Don’t miss

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Noah Berlatsky: Why Anxiety from ‘Inside Out 2’ is such a relatable character to me

Casey Michel: There should be sunlight about the kinds of deals Jared Kushner and Hunter Biden struck overseas

Eli Federman: The Ten Commandments don’t belong in schools


A new father

“The nurse burst into our birthing room with an urgency usually reserved for a SWAT incursion,” recalled Ed Manning. “She looked to be in her fifties and had the countenance of someone likely to refuse novocaine during a root canal. She was sturdy, close to my height, and in the crux of her arms was my newborn daughter, Dylan.”

“Who drew on this baby?” The nurse’s excellent question is the basis for Manning’s tale of the first few hours of his role as a father. Read on for the rest of the story.

Happy Father’s Day!

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