(A reference to the movie of the same name starring Bill Murray as a television reporter covering Groundhog Day festivities who finds he is condemned to suffering an endless loop of repeats of the same Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney. He is condemned, something in the manner that a Buddhist is condemned, to endless rebirths until he becomes capable of seeing himself and his world as it truly is so that he might reach Nirvana, which in his case included sleeping onscreen with his costar, Andie MacDowell).
Like Bill Murray’s life in Groundhog Day, nothing ever changes in Alabama politics. The state wakes up with the flip of the digital clock to 6:00 am. Sonny and Cher come blaring into the consciousness singing “I’ve got you babe”, and Alabama’s political establishment finds a way to embarrass itself by standing alone in opposition to some federal government imperative. Thus it has always been. Thus it will always be.
The clock struck 6:00 Tuesday night (March 3, 2015) with the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling that a federal district court judge in Alabama had no authority to rule on the constitutionality of the state’s marriage statute. So again, Alabama’s political landscape is revealed as a featureless desert of federal government opposition. Or, perhaps more aptly, as a Sisyphean struggle against the Leviathan of the federal government– whatever metaphor one chooses to describes a pointless, repetitive activity. The state starts its political day by rolling the boulder of federal government defiance up the hill, only to have it roll inexorably back down by the evening.
The history of Alabama refusing to kowtow, or even acknowledge, federal government power and preeminence dates to well before the Civil War, lasted through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, but reached its ultimate expression during the Civil Rights era. It’s a fair observation that the US Supreme Court used Alabama’s defiance as its guide in crafting the contours of its Civil Rights jurisprudence. There’s a litany of cases decided by the US Supreme Court (e.g., Katzenbach vs. McClung, the Ollie’s Barbecue case, to name just one that readily comes to mind) during the era that used Alabama’s recalcitrance to set an example. Essentially, Alabama was the US Supreme Court’s bitch during the Civil Rights era, slapping her around to show the rest of the states how things would be.
Which points to an important aspect of the relationship between the two governing entities. Alabama needs the federal government like the federal government needs Alabama. Each is a foil to the other. George Wallace’s stand in the school house door was carefully choreographed political theater. It gave him segregationist credibility with the Alabama voters, while allowing the federal government to show the power of its commitment to change. All the pols benefited vis a vis their respective constituencies.
So it was with the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling yesterday on same-sex marriage. Alabama’s Supreme Court essentially told a federal district court judge to go to hell; that she didn’t have the authority to rule on the constitutionality of Alabama’s law defining marriage as between one man and one woman. The Alabama Supreme Court proved its political bona fides by fighting against the social scourge of gay marriage, while the federal government will soon enough get the chance to stomp on Alabama’s stiff-necked people again. It’s a win-win. Political symbionts, I believe best describes the relationship.
Alabama’s Supreme Court went further than just claiming that a federal district lacked authority to rule on the constitutionality Alabama’s marriage laws. They also weighed in, quite heavily, on the notion of whether gay marriage is a good thing or bad for society (surprise!—it’s bad). They needn’t have. They were actually right (even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut) that a federal district court judge should not have the authority to rewrite state law according to her view of its constitutionality, and then attempt to have her ruling apply outside the limits of her territorial jurisdiction. Such a thing raises the specter of crowning every federal district court judge a king, not only in her own district but all across the fair land. There are thousands of federal district court judges. Bedlam would ensue.
Stop for a moment to consider: would it be wise to allow federal district courts to legitimately rule on the constitutionality of deploying forces in combat? Should a federal district court judge carry more power than the Chief Executive of the country? Because as much would be the effect of allowing federal district court judges the power to rule on matters of constitutionality in a manner that had broad application outside of their local jurisdictions.
The parceling of power between state and federal courts, more so than whether there is a constitutional right to gay marriage, needs redress. Forlorn federal district court judges do not need to be setting policies for whole states, and certainly not for the whole nation. Things have become a confused mess, particularly as federal district court judges have become activists, willing to tackle the tough issues of the day in the same manner that the now chastened (since the disastrous ruling in Roe v Wade) Supreme Court jurists once did.
It may well be that the US Supreme Court is tacitly encouraging this sort of activism, allowing the results it seeks without having to take responsibility for the political fall-out. The Supreme Court is very sensitive after Roe to the limits of judicial legislating, but it can’t shirk its responsibilities indefinitely. It will eventually have to rule on the matter, hopefully thereby settling the law across the land.
In the meantime, Alabama will continue to be the foil to federal government power, and the federal government will continue to be the foil to Alabama recalcitrance. Both Alabama and federal politicians thereby profit. Same shit, different day, as me and my Army buddies might have observed.
The two governing entities have something of the same relationship between American imperial ambitions and ISIS. Or of the relationship between Israel and Iran. In every instance, each party needs the other to give meaning and purpose to their existence. In every instance, each party enhances its image in the eyes of its constituency by fighting the good fight for whatever moral truth they hold dear and in opposition to the other.
So maybe it’s not just Alabama where every day is Groundhog Day.