Weekend Reading: Supreme Court News, January Insurrection, the National Rifle Association, and More
The best reporting and writing from the past week, and context to understand it.
There’s a lot of great journalism out there. Every week, in a format short enough that it won’t be clipped by your inbox, we aim to share some of the best, with additional context for understanding the biggest news of the day. This is a weekly digest of stories you can savor and reporting you can rely on.
Taylor v. Riojas — Harvard Law Review
Qualified immunity protects government officers from being sued for damages unless they have violated ‘clearly established’ law. Following the high-profile police killings of spring 2020, more eyes have turned to holding officers accountable and the ways in which legal doctrines like qualified immunity prevent that from happening. Qualified immunity has come under fire from academics, judges, practitioners, legislators, and the public alike for unjustly precluding remedies for violations of people’s constitutional rights. Last term, in Taylor v. Riojas, the Supreme Court held that correctional officers were not entitled to qualified immunity because the conditions of confinement alleged by the petitioner were so horrific that any reasonable officer should have known they were unconstitutional. In doing so, the Court — for the first time — overturned a grant of qualified immunity based on the obviousness of the constitutional violation. The decision sends a message to lower courts that they cannot ignore the obviousness standard and potentially shows a Supreme Court more willing to police the excesses of the qualified immunity doctrine, even if it will not rethink the doctrine altogether.
🎧 A Case That Could Transform America’s Relationship With Guns — Sabrina Tavernise, The Daily/The New York Times: A recent case before the Supreme Court revisited the scope of the Second Amendment for the first time since a landmark case in 2008 established a personal right to own firearms for self-defense in the home. The new case, from the state of New York, seeks to determine the scope of amendment outside the home.
📖 What Do We Owe to Those We’ve Condemned to Die? — Michael Hall, Texas Monthly: The absurdity of the law is on display in this case that was heard by the high court on Tuesday. At issue in the case is the push and pull of religious liberty versus law and order: A death row inmate, guilty of a heinous crime, is resigned to his death, and his request, which led to the case, is to have his pastor in the chamber with him as he dies and for the pastor to be allowed lay hands on him and pray aloud for his soul. This is what merits close consideration, but the fact that the state plans to kill the man? Well, that’s pretty settled at this point. No discussion necessary.
📖 How Trump Transformed the Supreme Court — Isaac Chotiner, The New Yorker: Isaac Chotiner’s incisive questioning is not wasted on Linda Greenhouse, who covered the Supreme Court for more than 30 years. She recently published a book on the Court, and the wide-ranging discussion with Chotiner covers many interesting topics and questions.
📖 The Surprisingly High Stakes in a Supreme Court Case About $28,000 — Ian Millhiser, Vox: The lede to this story on a seemingly dry and technical case does a wonderful job of showing how cases before the U.S. Supreme Court are technically about narrow ticky-tack aspects of the law but, in reality, are about so much more.
United States v. Vaello-Madero is a case about an impoverished American citizen, forced to repay a debt to the federal government that he only learned about fairly recently and that he cannot possibly afford. It is also a case about colonialism and the legacy of the U.S. government’s discriminatory treatment of Puerto Rico. And it is a case about the ways American democracy functions, and whether insulating that democracy from an ideological judiciary is worth allowing callous laws to remain in place.
Judge Rejects Trump’s Bid to Keep Papers Secret in Jan. 6 Inquiry — Charlie Savage, The New York Times
This news sat with me after reading it. Not for the depth of the reporting or the elegance of the prose but for the small victory it represented for the rule of law. It’s a very real possibility that, through foot-dragging by those subpoenaed in the inquiry, the mid-term elections will come and go, the Republicans regain control of Congress, and the entire investigation into one of the ugliest days in American history gets dropped. That possibility is thoroughly depressing, so I just wanted to celebrate things working as they should for a minute.
🖥️ Before, During, After the Attack — The Washington Post: What a tour de force of journalism! From the depth of the reporting to the digital presentation to the simple-yet-effective framing device of three discrete time periods to look deeper into a blight on the history of the U.S. Capitol, this is what one hopes to get from one of the nation’s few papers well-funded enough to pull it off.
📖 At Least 10 Republicans Who Were at the Jan. 6 Rally Just Got Elected to Office — Christopher Mathias, HuffPost: Sigh. Continuing in the vein of “things that are thoroughly depressing,” here’s an example of a headline that tells you all you need to know. If you’re thinking, “Well, attendance at an attempted coup does not necessarily a dunderhead make,” let me encourage you to read some of the tidbits included about those winners. Dunderheads.
📖 Tucker Carlson’s ‘Patriot Purge’ Film on Jan. 6 Is Full of Falsehoods, Conspiracy Theories — Bill McCarthy, Poynter: “In his controversial and conspiratorial documentary series attempting to rewrite the events of January 6, Fox News host Tucker Carlson described the attack on the U.S. Capitol as a false-flag operation contrived to frame, trap and ‘purge’ Trump voters in a ‘new war on terror.’” What a lede. The next graf says that “Carlson defended it as ‘rock-solid factually.’” So, you know, it’s pretty much unimpeachable. Except for at least the eight claims that Bill McCarthy dissects, point by point.
These recordings are a great many things, but they are, if nothing else, a powerful testament to the power of audio journalism. There’s often an assumption that crass conversations happen behind the scenes of powerful organizations, but to hear these conversations, in the immediate aftermath of the Columbine shootings, is as jarring as it is offensive.
📖 An Apparent Ransomware Hack Puts the NRA in a Bind — Lily Hay Newman, Wired: The leaked tapes continues a trend of bad news for the National Rifle Association, which, just a few weeks ago, was said to be the victim of a ransomware attack. The complicating factor is the group said to have hacked the NRA is sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury, which means the NRA could face serious trouble if it even tries to pay the ransom.
📖 How a Former Gun Executive Changed His Mind and Turned on the NRA — Ann Givens, Slate: An encouraging read because it has one of the great wonders of the world: a person, perhaps the person you’d consider least likely to do so, who changes their mind.
More of Our Favorites From the Past Week
What Lies Beneath: The Secrets of France’s Top Serial Killer Expert — Scott Sayare, The Guardian
Bill Ackman’s Glass House — Kim Velsey, Curbed/New York
How NFTs Create Value — Steve Kaczynski & Scott Duke Kominers, Harvard Business Review
The CIA Is Trying to Recruit Gen Z — and Doesn’t Care If They’re All Over Social Media — Jessica M. Goldstein, Washingtonian
The news doesn’t stop. If you checked out last week’s edition and found the topics interesting, here’s a collection of stories published since.
Travels to Outer Space
📖 The Uncomfortable Truths of American Spaceflight — Marina Koren, The Atlantic
📖 The Vaccine Mandate Kicks in at 100 Employees. What If You’re at 98? — Emma Goldberg, The New York Times
COP26 Climate Coverage
🖥️ The Brilliant Ways Big Business Is Pushing Its Climate Agenda During COP26 — Brian Millar, Fast Company
This week, elsewhere on The Postscript.
On the power of two award-winning features by Mohawk journalist Dan David.
Two classic books apply the tools of literary journalism to render Native American life in personal, culturally nuanced, and deeply observed narratives.