Partisan Hacks, Comprised of

Before the ink was dry on her nomination to the Supreme Court, right-wing news articles and fundraising emails attacked Ketanji Brown Jackson. One said that she had “taken radical, liberal positions throughout her career” without giving even a hint as to what those positions were. A different writer labeled her “a politician in robes.”

The writings did not contain a glimpse of irony or even the slightest acknowledgement that only recently conservative Supreme Court Justices have themselves been criticized as partisans. This criticism came as a result of issuing opinions with scanty or no reasoning that followed their own political predilections and that of their patrons; allowing unconstitutional laws to be enforced; and bending judicial norms to hear cases that have political overtones.

The conservative justices had to know that their actions would look political and produce vehement criticisms, but you might expect them to simply ignore the critics. When I was a baseball umpire, I expected disagreement with some of my calls. I knew that I should not umpire if I could not handle criticism. If you take a judgeship, you should not be surprised by criticism. And if anyone should feel secure from critics, it would be an insular band of people who have both power and life tenure.

However, the comments about the Court made some justices feel like paper flowers in the rain.* Ignoring the fact that defensiveness often gives greater credence to the critics, several justices made replies. The most quotable “defense” came from Amy Coney Barrett who announced that the Supreme Court “is not comprised of partisan hacks.” Of course, it would have been even more newsworthy if Barrett had said that the Court was filled with partisan hacks, but, nevertheless, the whine indicated how touchy some members of the Supreme Court are.

Now, if you are looking for self-conscious irony, don’t go to the conservatives on the Supreme Court. Whether or not she is a partisan, she is sitting on the Court because of naked partisan power, and she made her statement in a place that honors a person no one would ever sanely label as nonpartisan, Mitch McConnell. And yes, if she has an ounce of gratitude, she should be indebted to him for his partisanship.

If Barrett, for unfathomable reasons, thought her ex cathedra-like statement would end discussion of the topic, she was undercut by her colleague Justice Samuel Alito. A month or so after Barrett announced the absence of judicial partisanship, Alito made a speech to the Federalist Society, a group not widely known for its even-handed policies. Many sources concluded that this speech was so highly partisan that it should have raised ethical concerns for a judge. However, Supreme Court justices are not bound by the ethical standards set for other judges—disturbing yet true.  So, on the one hand, we have Barrett’s assertion, not supported by any evidence or reasoning, about the lack of partisanship on the Court, and then we have the stark evidence of a partisan speech by a Justice. Chicolini’s classic comeback in Duck Soup comes to mind: “Well, who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

But maybe, I thought, I was being unfair to Barrett. Perhaps her statement was more limited than I had first believed. Reports say that she is smart and a meticulous judge. She, no doubt, tries to use words precisely. She asserted that the Court “is not comprised of partisan hacks.” I went to H.W. Fowler’s classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. In it he discusses the difference between include and comprise: “[T]he distinction seems to be that comprise is appropriate when what is in question is the content of the whole, and include when it is the admission or presence of an item. With include, there is no presumption that all or even most of the components are mentioned; with comprise, the whole of them are understood to be in the list.” With her use of comprise, then, Barrett was only telling me that not all the Supreme Court Justices were partisan hacks. However, she might be signaling–with lawyerly precision–that it includes some. Or perhaps she is conveying that some justices are partisan but not hacks or hacks but not partisan? Alito comes to mind again. Many commentators, citing several examples, say that Alito is a partisan. They almost never label him a hack; instead, they almost always refer to how smart he is.

Of course, I may be giving Barrett too much credit for using words precisely. After all, she did use the phrase comprised of, a definite grammatical no-no. The prickly Fowler believes that the English language might be better off with the banishment of comprise: “This lamentably common use of comprise as a synonym of compose or constitute is a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.” Perhaps when it comes to words, Barrett is not a conservative standard bearer. Even if that might be laudable, comprised of is not to be praised, at least according to Benjamin Dreyer who writes about comprise in the immodestly titled Dreyer’s English: “I confess: I can barely remember which is the right way to use this word.” He says that he looks it up each time he is tempted to use it. Dreyer tells us that it is correct to say, “The English alphabet comprises twenty-six letters.” And this, too, is right: “Twenty-six letters compose the English alphabet.” But it is wrong to write, “The English alphabet is comprised of twenty-six letters.” Dreyer writes, “As soon as you’re about to attach ‘of’ to the word ‘comprise,’ raise your hands to the sky and edit yourself.”

Of course, you might tell me to lighten up. Don’t parse her words so closely. C’mon; you get the gist of her meaning. Don’t take her so literally. It’s not a big deal if she was imprecise. But, my friends, she is a Supreme Court justice, and when she writes an opinion, no matter how loose its reasoning, no matter how imprecise it may be, it will have important consequences. Barrett may be making decisions that control us for the next thirty or forty years. And precision should matter for a Justice. As Fred R. Shapiro writes in The Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations, “Law is the intersection of language and power.”

I wonder if Barrett will continue to suggest how nonpartisan the Court is if Ketanji Brown Jackson ascends the Court. Conservatives of all stripes are accusing her (Jackson) of being partisan. What kind of hypocrisy is this? Well, we can rest in the assurance from Barrett that she, at least in her own opinion, is not a political hack. Or can we?

*“Only paper flowers are afraid of the rain.” Konstantin Dankevich.

First Sentences

“To my surprise some years back, I began to hear people outside of my home state, Texas, talk about, and actually celebrate the holiday ‘Juneteenth.’” Annette Gordon-Reed, On Juneteenth.

“When we were new, Rosa and I were mid-store, on the magazines table side, and could see through more than half of the windows.” Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun.

“There are silences in American history.” Peter S. Canellos, The Great Dissenter: The Story of John Marshall Harlan, America’s Judicial Hero.

“An entire day had passed since George Walker had spoken to his wife.” Nathan Harris, The Sweetness of Water.

“By any traditional measure, James Buchanan was one of the best qualified men ever to hold the presidency.” Fergus M. Bordewich, Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America (2020).

“Wanda Batton-Smythe, head of the Women’s Institute of Nether Monkslip, liked to say she was not one to mince words.” G.M. Malliet, Wicked Autumn.

“I’ve referred to America as Fantasyland, but it was always also Tomorrowland.” Kurt Andersen, Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, A Recent History.

“In the wings, behind a metal rack crowded with bundles of cable and silk flower garlands and the stringless lutes from Act 1, two black dachshunds lie in a basket.” Maggie Shipstead, Astonish Me.

“There had seemingly never been a better night for baseball in Cleveland than on August 20, 1948.” Luke Epplin, Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series that Changed Baseball.

“Something was wrong.” Jo Nesbo, The Bat.

“It was the middle of the night.” Lynne Olson, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler.

“Penelope Kite stood at the door of her dream home and wiped her brow with the back of her hand.” Serena Kent, Death in Provence.

“Toward the end, as at the beginning, he lived only on milk.” Edmund Morris, Edison.

“’If there’s one thing wrong with people,’ Paul always said, ‘it’s that no one remembers the shit that they should, and everyone remembers the shit that doesn’t matter for shit.’” Gabriel Bump, Everywhere You Don’t Belong.

“I am a copy editor.” Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.

Two Things

I have been reading Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer. This book gives advice similar to all the books I have read on usage: “Go light on exclamation points. . . . Some writers recommend that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points per book; others insist that you should use no more than a dozen exclamation points in a lifetime.” Dreyer continues: “We won’t discuss the use of ?! or !? because you’d never do that.” And double exclamation points should be left for comic books.

Even so, readers of this blog (I assume all read carefully and have excellent standards) may have noticed the high rate of exclamation points and even an occasional use of those double punctuation marks. Almost all have been inserted by my editor—the spouse—who does have high English and copyediting standards but believes that if a punctuation method exists, it should be employed. (The exception may be the en dash. She claimed to know its proper use, but not necessarily how to create one in Word on a PC.) When I get back my draft from the editor and she has again inserted an exclamation mark, I almost always leave it in. It is my concession to our version of marital bliss. But that dozen-in-a-lifetime mark was passed long ago.

Our Brooklyn house has a backyard. This is not apparent from the street where all that is visible is a block-long stretch of rowhouses. The width of the lots varies slightly, from eighteen to twenty-five feet, but the lots are routinely one-hundred feet deep while the houses are usually about fifty feet in length. Thus, as in our case, a backyard of fifty by twenty-five feet.

Our yard may not be big, but I feel that I have spent an inordinate amount of time through the years working on it. A patio of bluestone was reconfigured, causing sore muscles. A stand of lilacs was divided and replanted, causing sore muscles. After many unsuccessful efforts to grow various things (we don’t get much sun and we don’t have bottomland soil), English ivy was planted and divided by a stone walkway lined by rocks imported from Pennsylvania, all causing sore muscles. Hedges lining the boundaries were planted, some by me, causing sore muscles and some by a nursery, causing a sore checkbook. The yard may not be Instagram material, but it is satisfactory.

It is not a high-maintenance place, but it still requires some tending. The ivy has to be cut back several times a year, causing sore muscles. Leaves from neighboring trees have the gall to fall into our yard and occasionally have to be dealt with. And the hedges periodically should be trimmed. Now, however, that I spend most of the summer in Pennsylvania, that maintenance is a real pain since I have fewer days to force myself to do it.

Last fall I realized that the aforementioned hedges were out of control. The original thought was to have them grow as high as the stockade fence behind them, part of which was installed by me, causing sore muscles, and part installed by a company, causing a sore checkbook. The hedges, which I had not dealt with for quite a while, were higher than the fence, straggly, and not what you’d call level. They had grown horizontally impeding the useful patio space. I decided a serious cutting was necessary, and it would give me a chance to use a seldom-used power tool, a battery-powered hedge clipper that replaced the manual ones I had used for decades, which had caused especially sore forearm muscles.

I charged up the clippers and hauled them and, because the hedges were so high, a step ladder out to the yard. I decided that now that I was undertaking this long-delayed project, I was going to be ruthless in hopes that I could ignore the bushes again for quite some time. I cut them way back. This did yield a lot of green boughs for Christmas, but the hedges now showed more brown, chopped-off branches than green ones. They did not look good. Ok, they looked as if I had killed them. I had undertaken severe pruning in the past, and the hedges had always come back. I was (reasonably) sure that would be the case again. However, looking out the back windows during the winter, it was not a pleasant sight, and the spouse and the NBP (nonbinary progeny) did not have my (reasonable) confidence in their health.

On the first days of spring, I went out to the hedges for a closer inspection. A lot of them looked–how shall I put it–dead, but a few weeks later, with a close, almost microscopic, inspection I could see the tiniest green needles on hacked-off branches. They are going to be fine, I said to myself with (reasonable) assurance, and that is how they still looked when I shifted my locale to Buck Hill Falls for the summer season. Only the true believer—I was the only one and my faith was not strong–could see that the hedges would again be a sight of Brooklyn beauty.

Although I spend most of the summer now in Pennsylvania, I return to New York every week or two to have dinner with the NBP. After we exchanged communications to find a convenient time to go to Black Iris, our usual neighborhood restaurant where we have not been since the pandemic began, I got an additional message. I told the spouse that although only ten words long, it contained three pieces of good news for her.

The first piece of good news for both her and me: The NBP wrote that “I just did the yard.” My now always-sore muscles eased a bit and gratefulness spilled out of my heart to the NBP for relieving me of a backyard maintenance day.

The second piece of good news: The NBP followed the introduction with three dots and then “you didn’t murder the bushes.” Marv Albert–like, I muttered a yes.

And the third piece of good news for the spouse: The NBP concluded the text with an exclamation mark.