Barack Obama is not a person.
I am not a person.
You are not a person, either, if you are involved in any kind of a legal situation. Which, as a member of a society under the rule of law, you are by default, although it won’t become apparent to you unless you are either elected to public office, or involved in a legal action.
Since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the media has been full of conversation about Scalia’s writing style. When I was an undergraduate studying constitutional law, his opinions were was my favorite to read, although I disagreed with almost everything he wrote so amusingly. I’ve always been attuned to language, and so in these past four years, as my divorce and its aftermath became an apparently endless legal quagmire, I’ve been tracking the use of language in legal documents — motions, decisions, and so on. (It is my opinion that lawyers are some of the best writers not widely read in the country.)
I remember looking at the first court filling in the divorce, which I downloaded on my phone, while sitting on a green lawn at a cheese festival in Vermont. I dwelled for a long time on the word “versus” on the first court filing in my divorce, me versus him, him versus me, how did it come so suddenly to that?
Getting back to Obama. One of the things that struck me immediately about these legal filings is that your name is immediately substituted for that of a character, with the use of parentheses and quotation marks.
A few days before Scalia died, I happened to make a list of the characters I have been known as legally in these past four years of conflict:
Alison Stein MarriedNameRedacted, (“Wife”) (“Plaintiff”) (“Defendant”) (“Priority Creditor”).
This shorthand helps everyone to follow along, and, since our system operates on precedent, it helps future lawyers and judges to strip away the relevant information for future conflicts. But it feels strange to be reduced to a character in this way. Everything I am, my memories, my accomplishments, the jokes I’ve made, the things I’ve learned, the people I’ve loved, the tears I’ve cried, are stripped away. What matters only are my rights, responsibilities and various burdens as “defendant.”
I understand that this a dehumanization is part of justice as we understand it. That by stripping away the particulars of a person, you can extract a principle that you can apply evenly to everyone in a similar situation.
Barack Obama is, of course, a person. A person whom you are free to admire, or despise. But legally, he is not a person, he’s President of the United States, a position vested with various executive powers and obligations, among them: “He shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint…judges of the Supreme Court.” (Article II, Section 2)
It seems to me that the Republican Senators who are vowing to obstruct the replacement of Justice Scalia have forgotten that in this instance, Barack Obama is not Obama, but, simply “President.” And they are not individual people with opinions either. Not, Mitch McConnell, but “Senator.” Whatever their personal feelings about the man, and whoever the man or woman happens to be, the rule of law only works if we all agree to be depersonalized in this way, elected officials especially.
To struggle against this is to call for a dismantling of our entire legal system, which has older roots than the U.S. Constitution, but includes it.
To struggle against this is to support a system based on personal favors and favorites, which is to say, to support tyranny.