Nearly 30,000 California prisoners are on hunger strike to protest various abuses, including the extensive use of solitary confinement. This strike is the latest reflection of just how broken the state's prison system is. In turn, the problems in California showcase the myriad messes that increasingly define American crime-control policy.
The two major same-sex marriage cases decided by the Supreme Court in June were puzzling for at least two reasons. Windsor, which struck down a major provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, featured a notably opaque opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Hollingsworth v. Perry, on the other hand, which resulted in legal same-sex marriage in California—albeit through a technicality—had a vote lineup that bore little relationship to how justices typically vote in standing cases, suggesting strategic voting on both sides. Part of the reason for these anomalies might be the Justice Kennedy's uneasiness. But it's worth noting that the outcome produced by these two cases is consistent with the long-held beliefs of one justice who was (unlike Kennedy) in the majority in both cases: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
One thing the three most anticipated cases of the recently completed Supreme Court term have in common is the questions they didn't answer. Hollingsworth v. Perry, by ducking the question on jurisdictional grounds, left the constitutional status of state bans on same-sex marriage an open question. Shelby County v. Holder theoretically permitted Congress to update the preclearance formula to put the teeth back into the Voting Rights Act. However, the Court gave lower courts future Supreme Courts no useful guideline for how Congress could proceed. (Admittedly, the answer for how Congress can constitutionally proceed, at least for the Roberts Court, is almost certainly "it can't.") But the term's clearest passing of the buck was the decision in the potentially major affirmative-action case, UT Austin v. Fisher. While many people (including me) expected the Court to use the case as a vehicle to declare virtually all affirmative action in public higher education unconstitutional, after eight long months the Court issued a brief opinion that merely sent the issue back to the lower courts without a definitive ruling. What then, does Fisher suggest about the future of affirmative action?
Two of my favorite writers on legal subjects, Dahlia Lithwick and Barry Friedman, wrote a piece for Slate earlier this week wondering if the progressive agenda hasn't been exhausted by recent victories on same-sex marriage. "While progressives were devoting deserved attention to gay rights," they argue, "they simultaneously turned their backs on much of what they once believed." I share their sense of frustration, but I interpret the landscape differently. To me, the problem isn't the lack of a robust progressive agenda. The problem is that progressives generally lack power. Last week, I saw strong defenses of progressive goals at every level of politics, from ordinary citizens to the highest offices in the country. From the opposition of activists and state legislators to barbaric attacks on the welfare state in North Carolina and reproductive freedom in Texas, to the President Obama's climate change speech and the eloquent defenses of fundamental values of equality made by Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, a broad progressive agenda directed at urgent problems was seen in a brief window of time. The problem, of course, is that much of this came in the wake of defeat; even the stirring victory in Texas is likely to be merely delaying the inevitable.
Still, an extensive progressive agenda is out there. It's worth trying to define some of the most important issues that the American "left," broadly construed, should be and are trying to address. I do not claim originality or an exhaustive list; my intent is to generate discussion and thought about what problems to focus on and how to move forward.