Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Supreme Court and Freedom

On October 26, 2001, amid the climate of fear and uncertainty that followed the terrorist acts, President George W. Bush signed into law the US Patriot Act, and fundamentally altered the relationship that Americans have with their government. There is very little evidence that the Patriot Act has been effective in making Americans more secure from terrorists.  The Patriot Act was not crafted with careful deliberation and consideration.  It was put together out of fear.  The Act expands the government’s authority to pry into people’s private lives with little or no evidence of wrongdoing.  This authority infringes on the 4th Amendment, which protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the 1st Amendment, which gives us Free Speech
 Its really unfathomable, that in the United States of America you can take your dog for a walk, get a ticket and be Strip-Searched….or go for a ride and forget to put your seatbelt on, be pulled over and taken into jail, and be Strip-Searched. But, the U.S. Supreme Court just ruled last week that the Constitution does not prohibit the government from strip-searching people charged with even minor offenses.
The case arose when Albert Florence of New Jersey was pulled over by NJ State Troopers in 2005 while his pregnant wife was driving him and his young son to his parent’s home.  He was arrested for failing to pay a previous traffic fine, even though, as it turned out, it was paid after all.  He was detained in the Essex County Correctional Facility, which has a strip-search policy for new arrests. Florence said that he was put through a humiliating a degrading strip-search, not once, but twice.
After he was released, Florence sued, arguing that strip searches of people arrested for minor offenses violate the 4th Amendment. Many believe that strip searches are an extreme measure that should be used only when the government has reason to believe that the specific person they want to search is concealing weapons, drugs or other contraband.
Many courts have said just what Florence argued — that the Constitution prohibits strip searches of people arrested on minor offenses unless there is suspicion of something very serious. (That includes at least seven U.S. Courts of Appeals, the powerful federal courts that are just one rung below the Supreme Court.)
But the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, has given its blessing to strip searches of people who are charged with minor crimes even if the government has no specific reason to believe they are concealing anything. The majority focused on how hard the jailers have it. “The difficulties of operating a detention center must not be underestimated by the courts,” the majority opinion said. Strip searches can help keep weapons, disease and lice  out of prisons. But the dissenters make a much more compelling case. Justice Stephen Breyer made the most important argument: that being forced to get naked and be stared at by strangers is inherently “humiliating and degrading.”
The dissent also demolishes the main point made in favor of strip-searching every arrestee: that it is necessary to keep prisons secure. In fact, there are many ways of keeping weapons and contraband out that are far less degrading. The prison to which Florence was admitted also does frisks of inmates and makes them go through metal detectors.
People do not like being physically humiliated by their government. The outraged reactions of many Americans to the TSA’s post-9/11 airport screening procedures show how deeply people feel about the matter, even when the purpose is the very important one of stopping terrorists from getting onto airplanes. The Supreme Court majority, however, does not seem to get it — or to appreciate the fact that when the government can strip-search people who do not wear a seat belt, it can strip-search any of us.
The Supreme Court majority has been on a crusade in the past few years on behalf of its very peculiar ideal of freedom. 

            The American Jewish community has cherished the freedoms guaranteed to all Americans.  These freedoms are confirmed not only by our commitment to our American heritage, but also to the centuries of our Jewish law.  As modern Jews, we have always tried to strike some kind of a balance between our lives as Americans as we turn to our heritage for spiritual guidance.
            Early Jewish law has always outlined a mandate for privacy.  In addition, we read, “When you make a loan of any sort to your countryman, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge.  You must remain outside, while the man to whom you made the loan brings the pledge out to you.” (Deut. 24:10-11).  Rabbi Akiva went so far as to suggest that one should knock before entering one’s own home “lest another family member require privacy.” (Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 112a)
            Jewish teaching discourages eavesdropping, gossip and the unauthorized disclosure of information.  We are prohibited from revealing confidences and even forbidden to seek out the secrets of others.  When someone’s life is at stake, we are permitted to use all means possible to save them, even if it means intruding on their personal freedom.  We need to know where to draw the line. But,  The Patriot Act makes it too easy for the government to snoop on its citizens and violate Judaism’s sacred rite of privacy.

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