Wednesday, 4 May 2022

The Politics of Judging

Something has been missed in all the furore surrounding the leaked Supreme Court opinion - and that is that it's completely mad that in any democracy the judges are picked by the president. Judges are supposed to be fearless arbiters of the law, unswayed by outside pressure and, crucially, independent of the legislature and the executive. They cannot do their jobs properly if they are beholden to outside interests nor will they be seen to be doing their jobs properly - as the old adage goes, judges must not just be independent but must be seen to be independent. Trust in the judiciary and the rule of law depends on it. Perhaps it's easy to worry about judicial independence when you live 4000 miles away and will never have the ultimate decision on whether to terminate a pregnancy. But it matters. And it matters not just because of philosophical principle, but because of precisely what's happening in America now. 

Some housekeeping. This is not a legal opinion. This is not an argument for or against abortion or even, really, about abortion. Yes, I know the opinion leaked is just a draft. No, I do not pretend to understand the legal reasoning for that draft opinion. Indeed, it may well be the correct "legal" decision. That's not the point. Instead,  ever since the court's balance swung back in favour of the conservatives, this decision (and, one fears, more like it) has been coming. The formula was simple: a State passes a bill prohibiting abortion contrary to Roe v Wade. The Bill is immediately challenged (as intended by the State) as contrary to the constitutional protections guaranteed by Roe v Wade. The law ends up before the Supreme Court who are asked to decide, in essence, whether Roe should remain good law. If it does, the State's bill is struck down. If it does not, Roe is overturned. 

In theory, this should not be a problem. A country's highest court should be the final arbiter of the interpretation of that country's laws. Leaving aside the merits of being able to strike down law and intepreting a codified constitution, if the law states that abortions are permissible it is the duty of the highest court to faithfully intepret and apply that law, interpret its boundaries and any limits etc. If individuals or organisations bring challenges against that law or aspects of it, those challenges must be given due attention and the arguments heard. This does not change whether the law protecting the right to abortion was judge-made in the first place (as in the US) or on the statute books (as in the UK). If a challenge was brought against the 1967 Abortion Act in the UK, I would expect the Supreme Court (or whichever was the highest court the appeal ended up before) to hear the appeal, the legal arguments and pass judgment in accordance with that legal reasoning. There is nothing, in principle, wrong with a court of law determining whether or not a law permitting abortion is good law.

Where the problem lies is when the judges sitting on the highest court are, with respect, not selected (just) because they are great lawyers and would be great judges, but (also) because of their political opinions. I am sure, as legal minds go, the nine US Supreme Court justices possess good ones but there is absolutely no denying that at least part of why they were picked is because they could be trusted to decide cases, when it mattered, in accordance with the picking-president's political beliefs. Those justices that Trump selected could be trusted to lean towards overturning Roe v Wade should the opportunity arise. Judge Jackson was selected, in part, because she considers Roe v Wade good law and supports a women's right to choose. This is not to undermine any of the justice's legal credentials - they are, I am sure, great legal minds as well as believing the correct things as far as the president was concerned. But that latter point is important. To some degree, their political leanings will have been part of why they were picked and picked by that president. There is a serious problem when one can predict, with almost certainty, how the court will decide a certain case based on knowing their political opinions and which party's president picked them. There is a reason why conservative-leaning States were so keen for Roe v Wade to be challenged under the Supreme Court as currently constituted: there is a 6-3 conservative, anti-abortion majority. 

Whichever way you slice it, the US Supreme Court cannot be said to be an properly independent instution committed to upholding the rule of law - because the rule of law demands that judges be independent of the political establishment, not picked by it. And that should concern everyone. Give it a decade or two and a few conservative justices ending their tenure under Democrat presidents and exactly the same case will be decided in the opposite way. The legal reasoning won't matter so much as the political leanings of the judges. That's not the rule of law. That's not an independent judiciary committed to upholding the law of the land and faithfully intepreting the legal arguments in accordance with existing precedent. Private political opinions should play zero part in how judges are selected. Judges with a well-founded reputation for upholding certain social policies or espousing certain political opinions should be excluded from selection for any judicial role, not actively courted (forgive the pun) precisely because of that reputation. 

Tuesday, 1 March 2022

The Mental Health Stigma

A broken leg is not the same as anxiety; a heart attack different from depression. Aside from the obvious, a more subtle difference presents itself. We know what to do when someone turns up on the tube in a cast (offer them our seat) or when someone clutches their chest and collapses to the ground (call 999). But if a friend started displaying signs of struggling with their mental health, many of us have no idea how to respond. We probably mean well, but it's not immediately obvious what to do. Being anxious does not just go away after a few weeks. Depression isn't cured because your friend bought you a stuffed animal. 

Part of the problem is, of course, ignorance. What having anxiety or depression or mental health issues means. How it affects people. How it comes in waves. How there's nothing 'wrong' one minute and then, all it once, absolutely everything is wrong. How what helped last time, may well be the worst thing in the world this time. How everyone experiences their struggles differently. How it's impossible, sometimes, to put your finger on quite what is wrong but dammit, somthing is wrong. And if you knew, you'd tell someone, of course you would, but you just don't know. When your leg hurts, you can point at it. Tell someone your leg hurts. But how do you explain that your brain hurts. That your mind hurts. That voices inside your head won't shut up or go away. That you do not feel anything or that you feel everything and that sometimes it's somehow both. At the same exhausting time. 

How are you supposed to help in such circumstances? I think it's a fair question. I don't have the answer. I write only as someone who has struggled, and continues to struggle, with mental health. Who has tried - and sometimes failed spectacularly - to help others with their own struggles. I know it starts with going easy on yourself. As someone struggling - you do not need to be okay all the time or even trying to be okay. It's okay not to be okay. As someone trying to help - making mistakes is okay. In my experience being there for someone is littered with errors, words said better left unsaid and actions done regretted almost instantly. Don't be discouraged. You never know when a hug offered makes the world of difference or a letter written changes the course of someone's day. Sitting in silence near someone is often the best thing you can do and requires nothing but time and patience.

If you're struggling, reach out. To me, to your friends, to someone. Or don't. Just know that you could. If that would maybe help. Especially then. But even if you're not sure. The world needs more people talking about their mental health. If you can manage it. 

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

My running diary: Part 1

How do you know someone ran a marathon? Do not worry, they'll tell you. I'm jumping ahead. I've not run a marathon - yet, anyway. But, I've entered the ballot for next year's London marathon and this morning ventured out for my first formal run of training. And promptly went the wrong way. Note to self: make sure the route is worked out properly in advance. 

Welcome to my semi-regular running diary. Partly because I have a blog (who knew?!) and partly because I need accountability and pretending that those of you that are reading my blog are particularly invested in whether I actually run a marathon will have to suffice until I start asking for donations and then I really do have to run, right? 

Having finished my first run, I can confirm a few things: 

1. I still don't like running. I like it less when it's raining, dark and cold. But I do like complaining and pretending that my self-inflicted issues warrant sympathy, so swings and roundabouts. 

2. Stretching is really important. Like really important. 

3. Buy proper running shoes. It really does make a difference. 

But, here we go. I can't promise it'll be fun, but it'll be an adventure, of sorts, I suppose. Maybe. 

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Shamima Begum, Citizenship and Judicial Oversight

 "But there is no perfect solution to a dilemma of the present kind"

So Lord Reed writes in the judgment of the Supreme Court in Shamima Begum's case. Simple words that go to the core of many struggles that judges have in all manner of cases: there, very often, is no 'perfect solution'. 

The facts of Ms Begum's case do not really need repeating. She left the UK to join ISIS along with two friends in 2014. She had three children, all of whom died. She announced her intention to return in 2019, which sparked fierce debate in the UK and culminated in her citizenship being revoked and entry into the UK denied. It is worth starting by pointing out that I find the Secretary of State's ("SoS") initial decision to revoke Ms Begum's citizens troubling, to say the least. Relying on her entitlement to Bangladeshi citizenship (an entitlement that, to my knowledge, she has never taken up and one that Bangladesh rejected), Sajid Javid decided that he could revoke her citizenship ("the revocation decision") without leaving her stateless as a result (which would be contrary to international law). Leaving aside the absurdity of treating an entitlement to citizenship as the same as actually having that citizenship for one moment, Mr Javid's decision, with respect, set a dangerous, and racist, precedent. Do you know who else is entitled to another country's citizenship? Anyone with just one Jewish grandparent - whether or not they are themselves Jewish. As it happens, so is anyone who has one grandparent born on the island of Ireland. Allowing Home Secretaries to revoke citizenship based on entitlement to another should concern everyone. Should Jews be forced to revoke their right to Israeli citizenship and affirm their "Britishness"? Enough has been written on Mr Javid's decision, but to be clear I firmly believe it was the wrong decision (irrespective of whether it does as a matter of fact or law render Ms Begum stateless) and should never have been made. 

Leaving that aside, not only was Ms Begum's citizenship revoked, but she was been prevented from entering the country to challenge that decision. Mr Javid cited 'national security' concerns as the justification for that subsequent decision. Ultimately, the question before the Supreme Court was whether preventing her from entering the country, in turn, meant that Ms Begum was unable to effectively challenge the revocation decision. The Court decided that it did mean that, but that the "imperfect" solution, therefore, was that her appeal against the revocation decision should be stayed until such a time as she could participate in it effectively - without any idea as to how that might be possible, when that may be possible, or even if it will ever be possible. 

The Supreme Court's judgment runs to 137 paragraphs, but it can be summarised succinctly: 

1. The SoS decided that Ms Begum would be a threat to national security should she be permitted to enter the country.

2. The Court is not appropriately placed to interfere with that assessment made by the SoS. 

3. Therefore, Ms Begum should not be allowed to enter the country.

A fairly simple point is being made: the SoS is best placed to determine when someone is a risk to national security and, absent statutory basis to do so, it is not for the Court to substitute its judgement for that of a politician. Part of the justification is politicians are democratically elected and ultimately, in theory, accountable to the people for their decisions. Of course, to even begin to accept this line of reasoning we must leave aside the deficiencies in our political system which renders it impossible to actually hold individual politicians accountable for individual decisions, especially when they relate to deeply unpopular individuals who happen to be ethnic minorities. The entire system operates under the illusion that the democratic process is an effective means of holding politicians to account for decisions that will remain unknown to the overwhelming majority of people. Ultimately, however, given the Court accepted that Ms Begum could not participate effectively in her appeal and given it seems almost trite to point out that cannot be an automatic trump card over any other consideration, the question is simple: who is best placed to make determinations concerning national security risks and what judicial oversight, if any, is appropriate for those determinations. 

I do not dispute that questions of national security are ultimately questions for politicians, not judges, but the Supreme Court appears to have abdicated any responsibility for ensuring proper scrutiny of those determinations. To put it bluntly, it is clear that Mr Javid was going to find a way to ensure Ms Begum remains in Syria and to ensure she is denied proper redress against the revocation decision because of the political capital it brings him and the Conservative party. The Courts are the only way of preventing such abuses from occurring - it is a complete nonsense to suggest that those of us who oppose Mr Javid's decision should find a solution in the democratic process. Aside from anything else, there won't be an election for three years by which point Ms Begum could well be dead. Judges are supposed to be protectors against human rights abuses, best placed to ensure minority rights are upheld - especially the rights of those who society has turned its back on and rejected and for whom the democratic process offers no prospect of redress. In other words, people like Ms Begum. 

Without straying into answering the question of whether the revocation decision itself was the "correct" one (or, indeed, a lawful one) - a question which was categorically not before the Court - it seems to me that the Court has shirked its responsibility in scrutinising determinations made by the executive. The Court seems to have operated under the assumption that two extremes exist: either the Court of Appeal was correct that judicial oversight involves "stepping into the shoes" of the executive and remaking the determination from scratch or, at the other extreme, that decisions concerning national security cannot be touched except with the Wednesbury reasonableness barge pole. I am not arguing that the Court of Appeal was correct, but rather than this assumption seems to me, with respect, to be fallacious. There is, usually, a middle way where judges respect the role of the executive in making certain determinations but subjecting them to more intense scrutiny than "so unreasonable no reasonable decision-maker could have come to that decision". 

I suppose it comes back to what sort of judges and what sort of judicial oversight do we want and need in a democracy. This is a question to which there may be no "perfect" answer.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Matzah, Tefillin and Time-Bound Mitzvot

In Pesachim 43b, we learn that women are obligated in the mitzvah of eating matza. The reason, however, is a tad complicated. Since women are, normally, not obligated in time-bound positive mitzvot (i.e. positive mitzvot that are performed at a designated time), it should follow that women are not obligated in the mitzvah of matza - after all, the mitzvah is performed at a designated time (Passover). However, matza is one of the exceptions to the oft-repeated rule that women are not obligated in time-bound positive mitzvot.

But why? From where do we derive the general principle that women are not obligated in time-bound positive mitzvot in the first place? 

Mishnah Kiddushin (1:7) states:

כל מצות עשה שהזמן גרמה אנשים חיבין ונשים פטורות

For all positive, time-bound commandments, men are obligated and women are exempt

In the Gemara at Kiddushin 35a:

ומנו רב אחא בר יעקב אמר קרא (שמות יג, ט) והיה לך לאות על ידך ולזכרון בין עיניך למען תהיה תורת ה' בפיך הוקשה כל התורה כולה לתפילין מה תפילין מ"ע שהזמן גרמא ונשים פטורות אף כל מ"ע שהזמן גרמא נשים פטורות ומדמצות עשה שהזמן גרמא נשים פטורות מכלל דמ"ע שלא הזמן גרמא נשים חייבות

The Gemara comments: And who is the scholar called by the nickname: The Sages of Paphunya? It is Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov, who said as follows: The verse states with regard to phylacteries: “And it shall be a sign for you on your arm and for a memorial between your eyes, that the Torah of the Lord may be in your mouth” (Exodus 13:9). In this manner the entire Torah is juxtaposed to tefillin: Just as donning tefillin is a positive, time-bound mitzvah and women are exempt from it, so too are women exempt from every positive, time-bound mitzvah in the Torah. And from the fact that women are exempt from every positive, time-bound mitzvah, one can learn by inference that women are obligated in every positive mitzvah that is not time-bound.

The argument is that: 

1. Women are not obligated in tefillin, a time-bound positive mitzvah 

2. Tefillin is compared to the entire Torah

3. Given Tefillin's importance, we can learn from tefillin about the entire class of mitzvot that are time-bound and positive

4. Therefore, as women are not obligated tefillin, they are not obligated in any time-bound mitzvot (with, of course, as noted, some exceptions)

The question remains begged: why, then, are women not obligated in tefillin - from where do we derive that? It is stated as much in Mishna Brachot:

נָשִׁים וַעֲבָדִים וּקְטַנִּים פְּטוּרִין מִקְּרִיאַת שְׁמַע וּמִן הַתְּפִלִּין, 

"Women, slaves and minors are exempt from reciting the Shema and putting on tefillin"

The argument so far seems circular: women are not obligated in time-bound mitzvot. Why? Because women are not obligated in tefillin. Why? Because women are not obligated in time-bound mitzvot. 

The Talmud Yerushalmi offers an answer at Brachot 14b:

נשים מניין (דברים יא) "ולמדתם אותם את בניכם" - ולא את בנותיכם. את שהוא חייב בת"ת חייב בתפילין, נשים, שאינן חייבות בת"ת, אינן חייבין בתפילין.

From where do we know that women [are exempt from Tefillin]? [It is written in (Deuteronomy 11)] 'And you should teach it to your sons [בניכם]' - [and this implies] not to your daughters. [So] one who is obligated to learn Torah is obligated [to wear] Tefillin, [but] women, who are not obligated to learn Torah, or not obligated [to wear] Tefillin.

I am not intelligent or learnèd enough in Torah to make much more of a comment on this, I merely present some of the sources that I have attempted to understand. Instead, I merely note that both Sefaria and the Stone Edition of the Chumash from Artscroll translate בניכם as children, not sons. If we can learn anything from this (and it is not clear that we can learn women are not obligated in Torah from it), then surely it must be that words and meaning really do matter.

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Schrödinger's Kosher Meat

In Pesachim 9b, which happened to be yesterday's (30/11/2020) Daf for Daf Yomi, the Gemara is discussing what we do if we see a marten dragging leaven into a house that has already been checked for leaven before Passover when such products are forbidden. Part of the problem becomes what do we in situations of layered certainty and uncertainty - we saw the marten dragging the leaven, but we cannot be certain the marten did not eat the leaven, in this case. Having moved through numerous examples trying to ascertain what we do in such situations, the Gemara returns to a previously discussed example:

דִּתְנַן: תֵּשַׁע חֲנוּיוֹת, כּוּלָּן מוֹכְרִין בְּשַׂר שְׁחוּטָה, וְאַחַת מוֹכֶרֶת בְּשַׂר נְבֵלָה, וְלָקַח מֵאַחַת מֵהֶן, וְאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ מֵאֵיזֶה מֵהֶן לָקַח — סְפֵיקוֹ אָסוּר.

"The Gemara elaborates. As we learned in a Baraita: With regard to nine stores in a city, all of which sell kosher meat from a slaughtered animal, and one other store that sells meat from unslaughtered animal carcasses, and a person took meat from one of them and he does not know from which one he took the meat, in this case of uncertainty, the meat is prohibited."

So far, so simple. The Gemara continues:

וּבַנִּמְצָא — הַלֵּךְ אַחַר הָרוֹב.

"This baraita continues: And in the case of meat found outside, follow the majority."

By follow the majority, the Gemara means follow the majority of the stores in the city - in other words, one can assume the meat found outside is Kosher because nine of the 10 stores sell Kosher meat. 

The Gemara moves on to discuss another case without addressing what I think is an inconsistency. Consider a situation where I buy some meat from one of the stores in this city and forget from which store I did so. The meat is presumed unkosher - "וְלָקַח מֵאַחַת מֵהֶן, וְאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ מֵאֵיזֶה מֵהֶן לָקַח — סְפֵיקוֹ אָסוּר" In this case of uncertainty, the meat is prohibited. Having realised I am in possession of meat that is now prohibited to me, I drop it to the ground keen to forget about the entire situation. A friend of mine later finds the meat and picks it up, knowing that there are a majority of kosher stores and therefore the meat is presumed kosher: "וּבַנִּמְצָא — הַלֵּךְ אַחַר הָרוֹב". The meat, suddenly, is presumed both kosher (for my friend who found it) and unkosher (for me, who forgot which store I bought it in) at the same time. 

I am later invited round for dinner at my friend's house (covid rules permitting, of course) and he proclaims: 

"Great news, Raphael, one my way to buy food for dinner, I found this meat outside at [spot where I dropped it on the ground]. Free steaks for dinner!" 

Can I eat the steaks? Or are they forbidden to me?

Monday, 9 November 2020

THE ELECTION WAS STOLEN FROM TRUMP

It should be quite clear to all SANE AND CLEVER people that the election was STOLEN from Donald J Trump!!!! It is OBVIOUS that the DEMOCRATLIARS have not won but they LOST!!!!! FRAUD ON MASSIVE SCALE!! It's so obvious but WE WILL PROVE IT. DON'T WORRY!!!! BIG COURT CASES soon. CLICK HERE FOR THE EVIDENCE!!!!!