The numbers are now simply staggering. By Wednesday, around 2200 Americans died of COVID. Another 180,000 cases were diagnosed. Over 90,000 are currently hospitalized and over 16,000 of those are in ICUs. Over the course of this pandemic, around 260,000 have died officially from COVID and there another 50,000 to 100,000 excess deaths that may be related. And over 12.5 million Americans have been infected. And all these numbers are climbing exponentially every single day.
The lion’s share of responsibility for this mass death lies with Donald Trump and his Republican acolytes both in Congress and in the states who have consistently refused to take the necessary steps to protect the American people. Even to this day, there has been no national effort to test, trace and isolate, nor a national mask mandate. Despite knowing how deadly it was from the very beginning, Trump has, for some unexplainable, pathologically twisted reason, continually downplayed the severity of the virus, even after he himself was one of its victims. Incredibly, the unwillingness to not only marshal the full power of the federal government to fight the pandemic but also turning the best preventative measure, mask-wearing, into a culture war, partisan political issue, probably cost him re-election.
Republicans in Congress have echoed Trump’s absurdities, flouting recommendations about mask-wearing and gatherings. The result is an infection rate among the Republican Senate caucus that is actually four times higher than the national average. Republican governors have consistently claimed that the lockdowns are worse than the disease and openly declared that some people will just have to be sacrificed in order to keep the economy moving. Those sacrificial lambs, of course, are primarily poor and minority workers. North Dakota’s governor only succumbed to issuing a mask mandate after the death rate in his state became the highest in the world.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court did its part to increase the COVID death toll, ruling that New York State’s restrictions on the size of religious gatherings were a violation of the constitutional right of religious freedom. The 5–4 decision with Justice Roberts joining the liberals in dissent is a travesty of judicial reasoning. As Justice Sotomayor pointed out in her dissent, churches and synagogues are actually treated more favorably than other large gatherings such as concerts and theatres. Sotomayor also noted that the majority’s concern that New York Governor Cuomo’s order singled out religious gatherings stood in stark contrast to their willingness to ignore Trump’s anti-Muslim rants in the cases involving the Muslim ban.
Justice Gorsuch completely ignores the medical evidence presented about large gatherings in order to fuel the culture war, writing, “So, at least according to the Governor, it may be unsafe to go to church, but it is always fine to pick up another bottle of wine, shop for a new bike… Who knew public health would so perfectly align with secular convenience?” This absurd reasoning completely ignores the difference between spending five or ten minutes in a store and spending an hour or more in an enclosed space with occasional periods of people bellowing at the top of their lungs. In addition, because the restrictions have actually reduced the infection rate in New York, none of the plaintiffs in the litigation are currently covered by the restrictions, making the specific impact of this decision effectively moot.
The broader implications of this decision, however, are more ominous. This decision reflects a truly activist Court that Sotomayor rightly describes as willing to “play a deadly game in second guessing the expert judgment of health officials about the environments in which a contagious virus, now infecting a million Americans each week, spreads most easily”. That inclination to override the judgement of elected officials does not bode well for the future on issues like climate change and other government regulation.
In addition, Gorsuch directly attacked Roberts in his opinion, an unseemly and unprecedented maneuver that seems to signal not only that this will be Gorsuch’s Court going forward but also that the radical religious extremists are now ascendant. Religious freedom will now be used to further legalize discrimination as Joyce Vance notes, writing, “Your religious views now give you the right to withhold the services of your business from people whose ‘lifestyle’ you disagree with, withhold healthcare from women & attend superspreader events that let you infect your neighbors with a deadly virus”. Finally, despite not writing an opinion in this case, newly confirmed Justice Amy Coney Barrett provided the decisive vote. With this case and an earlier case allowing an execution to go ahead, Barrett’s first two votes were to essentially kill people.
Earlier, the Court took the absolute opposite approach when it denied a request from prisoners in a geriatric prison in Texas to get further protections from the ravages of the pandemic. At least 20 prisoners have already died from COVID and 40% of the population has tested positive. As Sotomayor and Kagan write in their dissent, the prisoners face “severe risks of serious illness and death from Covid-19, but are unable to take even the most basic precautions against the virus…The inmates can do nothing but wait for the virus to take its toll”. The District Court had found “consistent noncompliance with basic public health protocols” and a failure “to take obvious precautionary public health measures upon which all medical professionals would agree” and ruled that prison officials must take remedial measures. The Fifth Circuit put that decision on hold, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court. However, as CNN reported, the Court’s denial to lift that hold “is the latest example of the high court deferring to the opinion of state and local officials as they work to combat the pandemic”. That approach directly conflicts with the New York decision.
Meanwhile, down in the DC Circuit Court, Bill Barr’s DOJ was arguing that the government has the power to kill US citizens without judicial oversight when state secrets are involved. The case involves two US journalists who claim they were targeted as terrorists while reporting in Syria. One of the journalists claims he ended up on a US kill list due to his interviews with al-Qaida militants and was then targeted in a number of drone strikes and bombings by US forces. As one judge incredulously asked the DOJ attorney claiming the government has the ability to “unilaterally decide to kill U.S. citizens…Do you appreciate how extraordinary that proposition is?”
With the Supreme Court’s blessing, Barr’s DOJ has also resumed implementation of the federal death penalty after a 17 year moratorium under the G.W. Bush and Obama administrations. And in yet another further break with tradition, Barr is continuing to execute people during the lame duck period, something that has not happened since 1889. Assuming the executions that Barr has scheduled go forward, more people, thirteen in all, will have been executed during the four years of the Trump administration than any other administration since the 12 year term of FDR where 16 people were executed. Just to highlight the absurdity of how the death penalty is imposed, one of those scheduled to be executed never actually killed anyone but was involved in a kidnapping where his criminal associate did kill the victims. That associate has only been sentenced to life in prison.
If resuming executions wasn’t bad enough, the Justice Department has created new rules concerning how prisoners can be executed. Increasingly, it has become harder and harder to kill people with lethal injection, primarily because the drug manufacturers refuse to allow their products to be used. Barr’s new rules get around this potential problem by changing the rules to allow executions “by any other manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence was imposed or which has been designated by a court in accordance with”. This now means that it’s possible for the federal government to execute people via firing squad or electric chair, barbaric methods that we thought had long been abandoned.
One of the reasons this Republican machinery of death continues like a well-oiled machine is due to people like Justice Neil Gorsuch. Gorsuch is now providing a legal justification for holding superspreader events. As @LeftWordsOrg writes, “What these people are fighting for is freedom FROM responsibility for how their behavior impacts others. A society can’t function when your freedom from responsibility trumps someone else’s freedom to live”. Gorsuch is also an enabler of the death penalty, writing, “The Eighth Amendment forbids ‘cruel and unusual’ methods of capital punishment but does not guarantee a prisoner a painless death”. And it was Gorsuch who declared that an employment contract required a truck driver to freeze to death with his trailer, rather than abandon it and live.
The Republican party constantly bills itself as the “party of life”. In addition, they constantly declare that any examination of their faith is an attack on religion itself. But far too often, for far too many Republicans, the concept of the sanctity of life dies at birth.
Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on November 27, 2020.