Professor George Replies

Life would be so much less interesting if Professor Robert George was not around. He has replied to my post yesterday with a post of his own over at Mirror of Justice. Among other things he accuses me of an ad hominem attack when I wrote that the tone of his first post was condescending and that condescension is his only key. I was wrong. Defensive self-righteousness is another key in which he sings.

Professor George accuses me of misrepresenting his words. My original post said that while I was no legal scholar and lacked the expertise to judge the legal arguments, I was pleased with the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision in Graham v. Florida. The Court ruled that it was unconstitutionally cruel and unusual to sentence a juvenile to life without parole. To make the point I referenced my mom, who was not a legal scholar, warning me about "bad kids" in the neighborhood and my belief that she was wrong. Kids do change when they grow up. Not all, but enough to make a life-time sentence seem unjust.


In reply, Professor George wrote these words: "His [MSW’s] confidence is not disturbed, by the way, by his professed incompetence to judge the legal arguments.  I guess they don't matter to him.  Evidently, he seems to think that the Supreme Court has plenary authority to invalidate laws the justices regard as unjust and uphold laws they deem to be just.  It's a common mistake about the role of courts and the scope and limits of their authority under the Constitution, but a mistake nonetheless." I replied that, "If by this Professor George means that no one but a legal scholar is permitted to assess the basic justice of a court ruling, I will look forward to his making that point at next year’s annual March for Life. I deny the exclusive right to judgment by a priestly legal caste which alone can judge whether or not a given decision by the Court meets the standards of justice I think should be met. And every citizen has the same right to question the Court."

Professor George now says that I drew a false inference, and that my words "if by this" are mere cover to slander him, although those words were plainly meant to note that this was a possible, even probable, not a definitive, inference. He notes that he did not draw the inference that only legal scholars can judge court rulings, noting that it was me, not him, who professed a lack of expertise. True enough. But, I was not assessing the legal arguments, I was assessing the outcome. I would need a map-maker to tell me if my maps on how to get to Disney World are well drawn, but I do not need the map-maker to tell me if I arrived at Disney World. Mickey Mouse would tell me that.

But, who is the one who is selectively misrepresenting? Professor George now conveniently leaves out of his reply what to me were the key words in his initial indictment: "I guess they [the legal arguments]don’t matter to him." If those words do not reek of moral and intellectual condescension, as well as an assignation of motives, then I am Mickey Mouse. How else are they to be interpreted? And, to the point at issue, and the whole thrust of my piece to which he is now responding is this: The outcome matters to me as much or more than the legal arguments, and I suspect Mr. Graham, the juvenile who sued the State of Florida, feels the same way.

I need hardly point out that my charge of condescension was directed to the tone of Professor George’s words, not to the man. I have never met him. Yet, he is confident accusing me of dishonesty and manipulation. Go figure.

Professor George concludes his little opus by writing, "If he wants to criticize my views and arguments, it would be far more constructive---and honorable---to engage what I actually believe and say and offer readers his reasons for believing that I am in error." Well, Professor George, I am no psychologist and I cannot judge the way a psychologist would reach a conclusion, but it seems to my untrained eyes that these words are an example of projection. He conveniently leaves out "what I actually believe and say" from his own defense and his post does not once engage the point I made: I believe Mr. Graham achieved a measure of justice from the Supreme Court that had been denied him by the Florida legislature. Instead, we get a diatribe.

Professor George is a man of gifts. It is difficult for me to perceive how he has used them well in this exchange.  

Michael Sean Winters


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10 years ago
I suggest that people read the reply by Robert George.  It seems to me fair and reasonable even if you agree or disagree with the particular legal decision.  But yet we get another diatribe by Mr. Winters.
''Yet, he is confident accusing me of dishonesty and manipulation. Go figure.''
There is plenty in Mr. Winters' posts over the past 6 months to not only accuse him of such a charge but convict him as well.  He is the master of distortion, half truths, shallow one sided arguments and ad hominems.  But of course that isn't dishonesty and manipulation.
Mr. Winters, try being honest for once.  It was part of the Catholicism that I was taught as a child.
Tom Maher
10 years ago
Peofessor George has quickly learned classic MSW's highly subjective style of operation. MSW is an essayist unbound by reason, logic or facts. MSW has poetic license to declare truth, without evidence or argument, that make sense to his limited, private view of the world. And he is loaded-down with pre-conceptions on how things work.

Yes, typically MSW talks very confidently about highly technical subjects like economics or the U.S. Consitution about which he knows little or nothing. MSW has complete disregard for technical subjects and technical opinions of experts in a field of study. "What do the experts say?" is not a question he usually asks. He is very self-advised.

MSW's pathology appears that he relys too heavily on his own personal experience and impressions. Very intelligent people have this problem. They can often grasp details rapidly and easily have a complete command of many subject. But many subjects in life are more complex such that even smart guys do not have but only a modest exposure to a subject even after years. Not knowing the complete essential of a subject, is a deep hole that very smart people fall into all the time. Some of the worst conclusions ever made are from smart guys with too little knowldege or experience.

Some of this is cultural. If you live only in your Catholic ghetto your going to have limited exposure, if not resistance to, things outside your happy little world. In a complex modern world people are often insulated from perfectly valid and wholesome "outside" views and facts.

Sadly people do not know what they do not know. MSW has giant knowledge and exposure gaps made worse by his glaring lack of respect for other people's compelling facts and views.
10 years ago
If I walked into a blue collar bar a block from my house and asked the crowd the  question 'should juveniles be sentenced to life for non homicide crimes?' I would not want to sit and have a beer with the ones, about half,  who would  say ' sure let em rot' .  
10 years ago
''f I walked into a blue collar bar a block from my house and asked the crowd the  question 'should juveniles be sentenced to life for non homicide crimes if they raped the person, beat them within a hair of their life and left them for dead?' I would not want to sit and have a beer with the ones, about 10% (probably all vote Democrat),  who would say ' sure they should be up for parole as soon as they turn adult ' .  ''
''If I walked into a blue collar bar a block from my house and asked the crowd the  question 'should we let doctors kill babies essentially after they were born?' I would not want to sit and have a beer with the ones, about 5% (probably all vote Democrat),  who would  say ' sure let em die' . ''
I had dinner at a blue collar pub a short distance from my house last night and about 8 NYPD cops were having dinner at the next table and I betcha I know how they would vote.  But if I went to the trendy French/Italian restaurant in Chapaqua the percentages would be way over 50%.
The argument in this decision is much more subtle then Mr. Winters makes of it. I personally am against the death penalty and long term incarceration for juveniles but understand the reasoning behind both sides.  However, Mr. Winters is not one to flesh out anything.  He has no goal at getting to truth or a reasoned discussion.
Beth Cioffoletti
10 years ago
I know, personally and well, 5 people who are serving LWOP sentences.  They were all sentenced when they were teenagers, and none were involved in a murder. 
They were all guilty of bad judgement and being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
I have known one young man since he was 5 years old, a gifted student and a joy to his parents and teachers.  He had no previous criminal record.  His crime: he gave a ride to some older guys to get marijuana when he was 18 years old.  While he waited in his car, someone was shot and killed during the marijuana exchange.  He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance to ever get out.  Despite numerous appeals, tens of thousands of dollars in legal expenses, pleas to 2 different governors for commutation of sentence, my friend is still in prison.  The law is the law.  He just turned 35 years old and has never had a disciplinary write up in the 18 years that he has been in prison.
This is the United States of America.  People don't believe me when I tell them this story, they think that something must be wrong with my story.  There is nothing wrong or untrue about my story.  I have witnessed and accompanied the unbearable suffering of this man's family, as they struggle to make sense of what has happened to them.
I have come to know many other stories of young men and women who have been trapped by this law (the Felony Murder Rule) and the subsequent mandatory sentencing that puts them in prison for life.  It is simply barbaric in its human consequences.
Frankly, the legal sophistry that accompanies those who want to argue for life without parole for juveniles makes me so sick I can't even read it. 
Matt Emerson
10 years ago
The back-and-forth here showcases the problem with a blog and with Michael Sean Winters's Andrew Sullivan-esque effort to comment on topics without the knowledge or credentials (or, in some cases, the omniscience) to make his opinions relevant.  Somehow, the combination of technology, the availability of news, and the unspecialized nature of the forum inclines a man to think he can, or should, say something about everything, regardless of expertise.  Economics, politics, theology . . . even inner motivations - it's all supposed to be speculated and pronounced upon.
In this case, Michael Sean Winters got caught out of his depth, and in response, has resorted to ad hominem non-sequiturs (see Prof. George's latest MOJ post), and has analogized the distinction between legal outcomes and legal reasoning to arriving at Disneyland versus looking at a map to get him to Disneyland (or something like that).  I suppose he wants to be humorous, but this retreat into folksiness only intensifies the impression that Winters, in this area, is unqualified. 
Additionally, we've seen these tactics before.  Winters's comments on Mary Ann Glendon, in the context of her declining Notre Dame's Laetare Medal, are revealing. 
On March 23, 2009, when ND first announced Glendon would receive the award, Winters was excited:
''Of course, Dr. Glendon, like the University of Notre Dame, is a source of pride for all Catholics, not just for conservatives. I view the world through very different lenses from Dr. Glendon, but I would be blind not to admire her accomplishments, her intellectual force, and her love for the Church. Whatever disagreements I have with her are disagreements within the family.''
On Thursday, April 30, 2009, after Glendon decided to decline the award, Winters's friendly optimism (and pride) immediately changed: 
''Dr. Mary Ann Glendon certainly seems to think it a moral impossibility to share the stage with the President. Given the fact that her last employer, the Bush administration, committed torture which is, last time I checked, an intrinsic moral evil, it is rich to hear her lecturing about moral outrage. I do not doubt Dr. Glendon acted sincerely. She just acted as a sincere Republican. I hope the bishops who are in such high dudgeon about Obama will demand that Dr. Glendon be forbidden from receiving any Catholic honors until she renounces her association with the Bush administration.''
And so it goes. 
Matt Emerson
10 years ago
To those future posters: if you want to have the proper space in between paragraphs, hit return twice.  If you don't, you'll get everything running together (regardless of what your comment "preview" looks like). 
James Lindsay
10 years ago
Actually, one need not be a legal scholar to understand the legal reasoning behind federal supremacy over state action. One need only know about the history of the debate leading up to the Civil War, which is the responsibility of every American. It is enough to know that before the war we were the United STATES and afterwards that we were (at least constitutionally) the UNITED States. If ignorance of the law excuses no man, ignorance of history is worse. The Federalist Society view that Prof. George seems to parrot and Justice Scalia most often champions is an example of such ignorance.
James Lindsay
10 years ago
About JR's polling thought experiment, the reason we have judges is that it takes experts to decide such questions, not the average citizen. If you put freedom of speech up for a vote, you would have 40% people against it. If you put freedom of religion of Catholics up for a vote in some southern states, it would not pass, for many of them have been taught that the Pope is the Antichrist.


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