Hear Kavanaugh Out or Get Out

I am exceedingly disappointed in disability community leaders. They are engaging in what Senator Ben Sasse recently referred to as “theatrics.” While theatrics may, admittedly, serve a purpose in some advocacy pursuits, the theatrics prompting interruptions of Brett Kavanaugh’s hearings are meritless. Beyond that, they reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of the Supreme Court. I’m embarrassed that disability community leaders have hijacked the Kavanaugh hearings to reveal, at best, ignorance, and at worst, manipulation by Democratic Party operatives.

Yesterday I was having a conversation with two friends who also advocate within the disability community. One friend shared that she had written letters oppositing Kavanaugh’s nomination. I asked why she disagreed with Kavanaugh’s pending appointment to the Supreme Court, and she was surprised I did not know that he is “against” people with disabilities. How so, I asked. My friend said that he had made statements revealing his bias against people with disabilities. Yet, when I asked for further details, she could not seem to remember the words he used. Round and round we went, but my friend either could not or would not specifically identify what actions Kavanagh had taken that offended her so deeply.

My other friend jumped in, telling me Kavanagh forced two women with disabilities to have abortions against their will. I said I found that highly unlikely, as Judge Kavanaugh is a self-identified Catholic. I suggested, instead, that he had upheld a surrogate decision-making policy in the Doe Tarlow v. D.C. decision. Surrogate decision-making policies were at issue because the women had been deemed unable to give consent. Importantly, this decision tells us nothing about Judge Kavanaugh’s personal thoughts about people with disabilities. Instead, the decision reveals only that the surrogate decision-making  policies at issue in the decision were constitutional and appropriately applied.

Now, I’m not saying that I agree with the underlying policy Kavanaugh upheld. And we don’t know whether Kavanaugh did, either. Critically, the role of a judge is to interpret the law – not to determine whether a law is “good” or “bad,” and most certainly not to make it. Indeed, I believe these are the fundamental facts that leaders within the disability community fail to grasp. By coming out so strongly against Kavanaugh, and by insinuating that he is a less-than-honorable man, they look rather foolish.

I am concerned that when the disability community needs to advocate for or against a particular piece of legislation – as it should do – too many bridges will have been burned on the Republican side of the aisle. I’ve never witnessed the disability community come out en force against pro-“choice” judicial nominees who think nothing of a woman engaging in her right to selectively abort a fetus on the basis of its disability. Similarly, I’ve not seen disability community leaders interrupt hearings of judicial nominees that support creating a judicially-recognized right to physician-assisted suicide. So why all the fuss about a Supreme Court candidate nominated by a Republican president?

Even worse, I am concerned that the disability rights movement will have lost some of its credibility, demonstrating its fundamental misunderstanding of balance of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Simply, the judiciary does not create law. People with disabilities would be better-served if more attention spent getting focusing on the legislative branch and its ability to create law – that is where the community can have real, lasting influence in improving conditions for all people with disabilities.

Gorsuch & Such

Multiple people have weighed in on the pros and cons of Tenth Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat left by Justice Antonin Scalia. For years, I’ve attended Federalist Society meetings, and am generally in favor of judicial restraint. However, strict constructionist justices have generally jeopardized the status of disability rights. The intent of this post is to evaluate some of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions in order to anticipate how disability rights may fair should he be approved by the Senate.

Adversaries of Gorsuch’s nomination have been outspoken, particularly in the realm of his previous decisions involving IDEA. As the Bazelon Center reports, Gorsuch has interpreted IDEA extremely narrowly, holding that the law merely requires “the creation of individualized programs reasonably calculated to enable the student to make progress towards the goals within that program….” Thompson R2-J School District v. Luke P., 540 F.3d 1143, 1155 (10th Cir. 2008). More importantly, Gorsuch writes that the standard is “not an onerous one.” Id. This opinion, and others like them, are concerning because it sets a low standard of achievement for students with disabilities. The bare minimum is acceptable, as opposed to fulfilling the full academic potential of the student.

Titles I and II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (and employment-related provisions of the Rehabilitation Act) are other areas in which Judge Gorsuch has routinely ruled against people with disabilities. Perhaps the opinion most routinely cited by Gorsuch critics is Hwang v. Kansas State University. This case involved a professor with cancer, who took a leave of absence to recover from treatment. When the professor was scheduled to return to work, there was an outbreak of the flu at her University. Her doctor recommended an additional period of leave, so as not to jeopardize the professor’s immune system further. This recommendation was denied by the University. Judge Gorsuch opined that a six-month period of leave policy was more than adequate to meet the needs of qualified persons with disabilities, as opposed to requiring the University to determine the particular needs of each individual with a disability. More troublingly, Gorsuch essentially recommends that the professor receive welfare benefits rather than pursue employment, given her situation.

On the other hand, Judge Gorsuch offers hope to the disability community in another very important area: assisted suicide. In 2006, he wrote The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, in which he avers that “[a]ll human beings are intrinsically valuable.” Although education and employment are important to people with disabilities (as they are for all people), there is a mounting movement toward assisted suicide, which undermines the value of life with disability, in particular. While I am disturbed by some of Gorsuch’s opinions regarding the government’s role in preserving education and employment rights, it is my right to life that concerns me most today.

Therefore, I think the Gorsuch nomination is a mixed bag for the disability community, despite many on the left clamoring for nay votes. It seems to me the calls to block his nomination from proceeding are silly; his reputation, both academic and professional, is impeccable, and his judicial philosophy is within the mainstream of acceptability. Instead, time would be better spent working on disability rights legislation that is less open to judicial interpretation.