Thursday, October 06, 2005

How do you spell "Supreme Court?"

Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2005
Spellbound: Today's Washington Post devotes five pages to the Miers nomination, but if you're in a rush, just read these two sentences:
"As Bush's staff secretary, she was known to correct spelling, grammar and even punctuation errors in memos to the president. But she has no judicial experience and not much appellate experience."
Never mind experience—President Bush wants nominees who understand that Supreme Court Justices don't legislate, they punctuate.
But wait—the president already put a stickler for spelling, grammar, and punctuation on the bench: John Roberts. At Hogan & Hartson, Roberts stuck clients with enormous bills by asking associates to rewrite briefs over and over until they were free of typographical and grammatical errors. In the Reagan administration, his snide memos mocked others' grammar. During his confirmation, he made sure journalists reported that as a youth, he never lost a local spelling bee.
In almost every respect, Miers would seem to be no John Roberts. But when it comes to spelling, grammar, and punctuation, Roberts may have met his match.
Will this shared obsession enable Roberts and Miers to bond on the bench—or is it more likely to cause a painful rift or even proofing gridlock? After waiting so long to change the Court, will the right wing's hopes be dashed by internecine dueling over the most elitist of concerns, proper punctuation?
We, the People: On matters of spelling, the Founders are little help, because they wrote the Constitution before many conventions of modern spelling took hold in the 1800s. Luckily, most spelling disputes can be resolved by simply looking in a dictionary.
Strict constructionists have a much tougher time, however, resolving questions of grammar and punctuation. As the flawed but amusing runaway British bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves observed, the laws of grammar and punctuation aren't really laws at all. On the contrary, they're judgment calls subject to a great deal of interpretation—rather like most Supreme Court questions.
Worse still, from the conservative standpoint, the conventions of grammar, punctuation, and even spelling change over time, as social conventions change. To be sure, an effective grammarian who capitulates to the will of the people can do real harm. History would not remember Justice Brandeis fondly had he written in DiSanto v. Pennsylvania, "The logic of words should yield to, like, the logic of realities."
On the other hand, a stickler who holds onto conventions of punctuation the public no longer shares may leave the law less clear than he or she found it. Consider one of the great Constitutional mysteries, the 2nd Amendment: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Few sentences have done more to shape our current political landscape, and by extension, the current makeup of the Court. Yet you don't even have to be a Supreme Court Justice to see that the 2nd Amendment is largely a punctuation problem. Removing the first and third commas clears matters up quite a bit.
Eats, Shoots & Clams: It's bad enough that John Roberts was confirmed without revealing his judicial philosophy. It's worse that all we know of Harriet Miers's views is this Post quote from her sometime beau, Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan "She's a Terrible Cook" Hecht: "I know what her judicial philosophy will be, and when [conservatives] find out what this president knows about Harriet, they are going to be happy as clams."
But on top of everything else, now we have no earthly idea what their grammatical philosophies are, either.
Harriet Miers has never been a judge, and probably has no judicial philosophy. John Roberts may be hiding his, or may not have one himself.
By contrast, both Miers and Roberts obviously have strong views about grammar and punctuation. Those views will affect every sentence they write for the next 30-40 years. If they're both such sticklers, we have a right to know the philosophy behind their stickling.
Where do they stand on the serial comma ("disappointed, depressed, and demoralized" or "disappointed, depressed and demoralized")? With respect to the third person indefinite pronoun, do women have equal rights ("every Justice knows his heart" or "every Justice knows his or her heart" or "every Justice knows her heart")?
Finally, how can Ms. Miers reconcile her alleged dedication to established rules of grammar with her decade-long dedication to one of the worst grammatical evildoers in American history?
The White House has an obligation to release every document that Harriet Miers has written, edited, or let go by without a mark. Conservatives are already dumbstruck that Bush didn't pick another Scalia. Harriet Miers will never survive if they find out she's no William Safire, either. ... 11:39 A.M. (link)
** Update: Former Supreme Court clerk, future Supreme Court Justice, and fluent English speaker Robert Gordon reminds me that in her maiden speech yesterday, Miers got off to a rocky start in her bid to become Associate Grammarian:
"The wisdom of those who drafted our Constitution and conceived our nation as functioning with three strong and independent branches have proven truly remarkable."
Chief Justice Roberts might allow the controversial use of "proven" in place of the older and more established "proved," but any stickler who says "The wisdom ... have" listens too much to George W. Bush. Of course, in our obsession with grammatical correctness, we shouldn't miss the larger point: Even without the error in verb agreement, it would be a lousy sentence. ... 1:29 P.M.

Link here.