Full Court Press—The Supreme Court’s last week of the summer began with decisions upholding the death penalty in Kansas, overturning strict campaign-finance laws in Vermont and largely approving Tom DeLay’s redistricting power-grab in Texas. Conservatives seemed to be getting everything they wanted from the new Roberts-Alito court until the end of the week. Then the Court struck down the military tribunals concocted by the Bush administration for trying alleged terrorists held in the U.S. camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The ruling, wrote the Washington Post, “echoed not simply as a matter of law but as a rebuke of a governing philosophy.”
The Court’s rejection of one aspect of the administration’s push for expanded and unchecked executive power was laid out by 86-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the majority opinion. Stevens, a World War II vet, specified that the White House must seek approval from Congress before prisoners can be tried by a military court and must treat the Guantánamo detainees in a matter consistent with the Geneva Conventions and U.S. military standards. Congressional critics of the administration’s anti-terror policies welcomed the chance to provide legislative oversight, even though most members previously viewed the prison camp as a necessity, or at least a necessary evil.
A few months ago DNC chairman Howard Dean was asked where his party stood on the detention facility. “I actually don’t think we have a Democratic Party position,” Dean replied. “I’ve actually never had a discussion about that with [Senate Minority Leader Harry] Reid or [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi.” But after Pelosi released a statement praising the Court’s decision, House Majority Leader John Boehner accused her of supporting “special privileges for terrorists.” One GOP pollster called the ruling “a blessing in disguise,” allowing conservatives to once again try to paint liberals as terrorist-appeasing softies.
Administration policymakers, however, were less than cocksurewith some hinting that the controversial facility, where only 10 of 450 prisoners have been formally charged with anything and none convicted, could eventually be shut down. Said one administration lawyer of the ruling, “It’s very, it’s very significant, and it’s a slam.”
Conservatives Rebel—Just as the Supreme Court was invoking the Voting Rights Act (VRA) to invalidate a DeLay-drawn congressional district in southwestern Texas, conservatives in the House of Representatives were trying to gut the landmark act. Both Republican and Democratic leaders wanted the civil-rights legislation renewed quickly, before key parts of it expire in 2007 or even before the November election. The legislation passed the Judiciary Committee by a vote of 33 to 1. “This train is out of the station,” Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, a co-sponsor of the renewal legislation, predicted at the time.
But rank-and-file conservatives privately objected to provisions mandating bilingual ballots and Justice Department oversight of old Confederate states. When the House Republican leadership tried to pass the bill with little debate and no amendments, conservatives rebelled, chant-ing in unison at a closed-door caucus meeting for the legislation to be dropped. Afterward, House leaders abruptly pulled the bill from the floor and canceled the vote. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a longtime civil rights leader, said conservatives were trying to kill the bill, not improve it, calling the uprising “an attack on the voting rights of millions of American citizens.”
The VRA has often been described as the highest achievement of the civil rights movement, ensuring African-Americans and other minorities the right to vote. Democrats had hoped to win its renewal before Sensenbrenner likely passes the Judiciary Committee gavel to Rep. Lamar S. Smith, a Texas Republican who opposes renewing the VRA provisions. Smith also happens to be one of four members whose district was redrawn by DeLay.
Video Game Diplomacy—If the United Nations or African Union can’t stop the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, maybe video games can. A new online game, Darfur Is Dying, aims to raise public awareness of the Darfur crisis and galvanize support for ending it. The game takes place in a Sudanese refugee camp, where players try to avoid the Janjaweed militia and forage for safe drinking water. Sponsored by Reebok and MTV, and designed by students at the University of Southern California, the world-saving alternative to Doom has already been downloaded 750,000 times in the last two months.