Jesus, RBG, and the Law

Jesus told a parable about a man beaten, robbed, and thrown into the ditch. Two temple leaders passed by and refused to help. They read the law as preventing them from assisting the man in the ditch. Perhaps they quoted Leviticus 21: “A priest must not make himself unclean…by approaching a dead body”.


But another man, the Samaritan emphasized a different portion of that Law, and found not only justification but encouragement for helping the man in the ditch. Perhaps he read Leviticus 19: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”


He bound up the man’s wounds, took him to a nearby inn, and paid for his care.


So it is with our Law today. We can find elements of that Law that empower us to help those in need; this is known as a liberal reading of the Law. Or we can rely upon other parts of that Law that prevent us from helping those in need; this is known as a conservative reading of the Law.


A recent case in Florida illustrates this in a wonderful way.


The people of Florida voted in 2018 by a 2-1 majority to approve a constitutional amendment giving felons who had served their time in jail the right to vote. Laws limiting felons from voting date to the Reconstruction era following the Civil War as part of a larger strategy to prevent people of color from voting. Over the years, most of these laws have been removed from the books. In many states, felons automatically regain their voting rights the moment they complete their prison sentence. In some states, felons can vote from prison.


There are approximately 1.4 million felons in Florida who have served their time and who, therefore, thought they were free to vote.  The legislature wanted to prevent this, so they passed laws to require these felons to pay crime-related restitution and all court costs before regaining their right to vote.


Federal Judge Robert Hinkle threw out the court costs restrictions, calling them a poll tax. The case was sent to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which serves Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The Court meets in a building named for Elbert Tuttle who served as a Chief Judge in the 1960s, known for decisions advancing the civil rights of African-Americans.


The question before the Appellate Court was this: Will these judges interpret the law to help these citizens vote or to hinder them?


Therein lies the chief difference between a liberal judge and a conservative judge.


The four liberal judges, all appointed by Democrat presidents, voted to free the felons to vote without the prior necessity of paying all court-imposed costs. But the majority, all conservatives appointed by Republican presidents (including five appointed by President Trump), voted to keep the financial restrictions. Voting with the majority is one of the women currently being considered for the U. S. Supreme Court, Barbara Lagoa, of Miami, appointed to the Circuit Court just last year by President Trump.


This is a classic “Good Samaritan” case, contrasting judges who walk by on the other side, quoting from the Law to hinder people from exercising their right to vote, from liberal judges who stoop to help the citizen in the ditch, quoting from the Law to help people exercise their right to vote.


In the story Jesus told, the Samaritan traveler who helped the man in the ditch was the hero. “Which of these men,” Jesus famously asked, “was a neighbor to the man in the ditch?” But in Florida, the contemporary story has a different narrative, leaving hundreds of thousands of Florida citizens uncertain if they will be able to vote. The conservative judges left the citizens in the ditch.


But Jesus, blocked by the conservative judges of the federal appellate court in Atlanta, has taken a different route to justice. He has inspired some of those kneeling, protesting athletes to pay the fines. An organization founded by star basketball player LaBron James has taken the lead, motivating athletes to pay the court costs of Florida felons. Their actions mirror the deed of the Good Samaritan in the story of Jesus, carrying the wounded man to the nearest inn and saying, “Care for him. When I return, I will pay you for all expenses.”


What does Jesus say?  “Go and do likewise”


Which is the sort of thing Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been doing all her judicial life, beginning with her 1972 presentation before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on behalf of the rights of women. Learn all about that in the 2018 film “On the Basis of Sex.” Which is the reason, she (like a Good Samaritan) will lie in state in both the Supreme Court and the Capital, while the majority of judges on the Atlanta Circuit Court will be remembered as walking by on the other side.




(September 2020)