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Our judicial system - whither goes integrity?
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Forsyth County News
Two recent Federal Court decisions raise serious issues relating to national moral standards. Although neither case dealt with world-shaking matters, they echo positions taken in more complex situations and raise questions of integrity, morality and acceptable behavior. More and more the courts seem to be establishing national standards in these areas, unfortunately, in this author’s opinion, moving us in the wrong direction.

In December 2006, the Stolen Valor Act was signed into law. It broadens provisions of previous statutes, making it a federal misdemeanor to manufacture, sell, wear or claim to have received any military decorations or medals. Feelings about the law were strong enough that the Senate passed by a unanimous vote -- a rare occurance. Recently a number of candidates for major political office have been caught in outright lies about their military service or receipt of such awards, later claiming that “they got things confused" (That should be enough to disqualify them from political office. It’s not the lies, its how badly they lied and how poorly they attempted to cover it up -- clearly disqualifiers in today’s political climate.)

A few weeks ago the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, declared that law unconstitutional by a 2-1 vote. It voided the conviction of a local political figure who claimed to have won the Medal of Honor. The problem is less with the court’s decision than with its reasoning. Despite protests by the one dissenting justice that Supreme Court decisions provide precedent to indicate that false statements are not protected under the First Amendment, the Circuit Court ruled that punishing the lie violated the individual’s free-speech rights. Even more puzzling was their claim that there was no evidence to show that such lies harm anyone and, therefore, no reason to impose a ban.

Why do politicians (and others) make such claims? I believe, in most cases, the answer is obvious -- to gain political advantage over opponents. And why is this the case? Again, I believe the answer is because most people respect and admire those who have served and have been awarded such honors. So the claim that no one is hurt would seem to be false. Clearly, it hurts the opponent.

But there is something much deeper here. Such claims undermine the entire system and injure everyone -- the people who base their vote upon false information; the people who believe valor is worthy of recognition; and the people who believe that integrity should be the underpinning of our civilization. It is hard to justify the selection of individuals who cannot see this relationship to serve at high levels in our judicial system.

The second decision just came from a federal judge who overturned Nebraska’s flag law. Since 1977, Nebraska has had a law which made it a crime to cast contempt or ridicule on a U.S. or Nebraska flag by mutilating, defacing, burning or by trampling on it. A Topeka, Kan., church group has been appearing at military funerals and trampling on the U.S. flag because they feel that the military deaths are God’s retribution for national tolerance of gays. The judge ruled that such acts (i.e. flag desecration), as long as they are not accompanied by violence, are a protected form of free speech. Here the problem is less with the judge than it is with the Supreme Court precedent upon which he relied.

It is interesting to speculate on the connection of “free speech” and “stomping" What about hitting or setting fires, or shooting? They are also means of expression. Where will the extension of First Amendment rights stop, and when will reason kick in? Clearly, the Framers of the Constitution had a more limited interpretation in mind, yet it is difficult to draw clear boundary lines, and today the courts are leaning more and more to the most lenient interpretations.

This situation has another fascinating aspect. We have made great progress in protecting the rights of minorities. Today laws protect people from anti-social acts directed against their religious beliefs, race, ethnic origins, sexual orientation and age among other things. But what about belief in one’s country or feelings of patriotism? In a time when the country is at loose ends with respect to both internal direction and its place in the world, these elements are critical. And more and more the judicial system seems to undermine any efforts to establish or maintain levels of integrity, to protect these core values and to exercise reason in interpreting where the lines should be drawn. It is easier to abolish those lines and let almost anything go than it is to take a reasoned position and defend the logic of establishing and maintaining standards. But without this effort, virtually all civilizations, throughout recorded history, have found themselves in a downward spiral, eventually leading to obliteration.

What can be done to change things? Nothing, if people do nothing and just hope that something will happen! The only way change will take place -- real change -- is if people get involved. That means not only casting a ballot but also making positions known in the media, taking an active role in local politics and even running for office (little will be accomplished if the only choice is among the lesser of the evils). I am not a supporter of many of the views of the “Tea Party” but I applaud the energy and willingness of people, in basically a grassroots effort, to take an active role in what is going on around them. If only everyone got involved we would have a much stronger (and better) nation.

We need to find ways to initiate valid debate, to air issues on a national level, and to work together on compromise. We need to find ways to eliminate the intransigence that exists today and to reduce the anger that pervades so much of the nation. We have had perhaps the best judicial system in the world. Like anything else, preserving that system requires action. Change rests in our own hands.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at melcopen@hotmail.com.